Only one team has looked the best team in the world for the past three days of the first Test. It is not the one which officially – soon they will be saying allegedly – holds the ranking.
England were left staring defeat in the face last night as South Africa, ravenous for the exalted status, continued their remorseless domination. The bare figures tell the difference between the teams: South Africa made an extraordinary 637 for 2 declared in their first innings, with Hashim Amla making the first triple century in this country for 22 years, and on the same benign surface three hours later England had staggered to 102 for 4.
The fear was that the tourists would be underprepared, but they recovered from a moderate first day to win nine consecutive sessions without reply. Nothing has gone right for England after the first day and for most of the time they have seemed bereft of any notion about how they might alter that. It is a considerable relief that England possess the most formidable bowling attack on the planet. What the tourists might otherwise have done to them yesterday is beyond contemplation. Their first innings was monumental. Amla made 311 not out – only the 26th triple hundred in Test matches – and shared in an unbroken partnership with Jacques Kallis of 377, the highest here for 55 years.
Just when it seemed a wicket would never fall again in the match, England, asked to bat four sessions to save it, promptly lost four. The world's No 1 ranked side, a status they have rarely played up to since acceding to it a year ago, are eyeball to eyeball with defeat.
England have dug themselves out of enough holes to make survival a little more than merely fanciful. Unfortunately, the two batsmen who might have been expected to bat out time are back in the dressing room. Alastair Cook followed his first innings hundred with a duck and Jonathan Trott was also caught behind. When Kevin Pietersen lost his middle stump to Morne Morkel two overs after being dropped off the same bowler, England were deep in the mire. Deeper still when Andrew Strauss was caught off a sweep.