The defeat that England suffered yesterday against South Africa was perhaps the worst of the 266 inflicted on them in Test matches. On the surface the margin of an innings and 12 runs is in the middling ranks of heavy reversals.
But consider the context. After the first day, England, still the No 1 side in the world, were 267 for 3. They were then bowled out for 385 and, in their second innings, when all they needed to do was bat for four sessions on a friendly pitch, for 240. In between South Africa made 637 for 2 declared. For four days, England were hopelessly, relentlessly outclassed with both bat and ball.
All looked so hunky dory after the first day when Alastair Cook ruthlessly accumulated his 20th Test hundred. But long before yesterday morning England had batted themselves into a deep hole. They lost their last seven first-innings wickets for 114 and their first four in the second for 67.
Four wickets to the bad at the start of the fifth day, it was imperative that England reached lunch without further loss. In the event, they lost one but in reducing the deficit to 75 had given themselves hope.
Ravi Bopara was the only victim of the morning session before Ian Bell found a partner in Matt Prior who was his equal in compulsory passivity. Bell played defensive shots with such delicately soft hands that on several occasions the ball dropped at his feet.
Prior curbed his natural instincts and in the 77th over England had passed 200 and both sides must have been thinking of the importance of the second new ball. Then he swept at Imran Tahir and managed only a looping top edge to slip.
Dale Steyn took the new ball and his second bowl saw Bell caught easily at slip.
Steyn quickly accounted for Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann and it was all over before tea when Tahir had Jimmy Anderson lbw.
For four days, England were hopelessly, relentlessly outclassed with both bat and ball