Thunderous highveld storms may yet allow England to complete another memorable series victory over one of Test cricket's major forces, but do Andrew Strauss' defiant and admirable side deserve to leave South Africa as winners?
Deep down, few would deny that South Africa have been the better side in the four-Test series, but Strauss's England are developing the happy and enviable knack of winning series when they possibly do not merit it.
Graeme Smith's side have been the more impressive outfit to date, playing the better cricket and dominating three of the four matches, and but for the doggedness of Paul Collingwood, Ian Bell and Graham Onions, England would now be facing a humbling 3-1 series defeat. The Ashes, to some extent, followed a similar course. England and Australia were pretty evenly matched last summer but the end-of-series statistics strongly suggested that Ricky Ponting's side had played the better cricket.
That Collingwood has been England's player of the series highlights how events in South Africa have unfolded and where Strauss's side need to improve if they wish to reach the top of the world Test rankings. Collingwood has many admirable qualities, several of which are too often taken for granted or forgotten, but when his Test career comes to an end he will not be remembered as a match-winner.
Yes, Collingwood will keep his nerve and see his side home in a tight low-scoring situation with a nuggety unbeaten 65 but he has rarely grabbed a game by the scruff of the neck and dictated its course. His career highlights this. In 56 Tests, Collingwood has passed 90 on 13 occasions, but only twice have these innings resulted in an England victory.
Collingwood's predicament is no fault of his own; often it is just the way the game works. There are other players who are hugely unreliable and put in the occasional performance but it results in a win. Great teams possess both types of player.
Over a period of time, a team will begin to show the same qualities as its leader and senior figures, and the current England side embodies Strauss and Collingwood. Strauss has won and will continue to win matches for England – batting as an opener rather than at No 5 gives him the opportunity to do this – but he admitted there were limits to where this current England side can go by stating the performances of his team in South Africa had been greater than the sum of their parts.
This is a worthy trait, one that a team's supporters should be proud of but the question is – is this something England and Strauss should worry about?
Winning series, especially with a side that is not playing to their full potential, is undoubtedly a good and extremely encouraging habit. It increases the self-belief of the team and creates a positive environment for it to work in. England's problem is not Collingwood or Strauss. Every side needs characters like these two – dedicated, committed and obdurate so-and-sos who take nothing for granted and play every match as though it may be their last. The natural way they conduct themselves sets a wonderful example to the rest of the side.
But if England want to become the best Test side in the world, a player like Collingwood should not be the main man very often. Exceptional sides have Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis, Ricky Ponting, Matthew Hayden, Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Viv Richards or Sachin Tendulkar-type figures leading the way.
And, moving forward, that is England's next and possibly biggest challenge; finding figures similar to those above, namely players that have the ability and knack of consistently winning games. Kevin Pietersen is obviously such a figure but English cricket needs to produce more if the national side is to be viewed as more than a counter-attacking team that nips in and catches a good side by surprise every now and then.
Axing Onions may end in tears
Graham Onions is not the first bowler to be dropped by England after saving a Test with his batting. The same treatment was handed out to Robert Croft, the Glamorgan spinner, in 1998. At Old Trafford Croft spent more than three hours defiantly keeping out South Africa's finest but he was axed for the next Test at Trent Bridge.
Croft's exclusion was understandable – he had not taken a wicket in the previous three Tests and had conceded over 200 runs. Onions' demotion, unless he has a niggle that nobody knows about, is far more contentious. His figures in the opening three Tests – eight wickets at an average of 45.75 – do not stand out, but it is felt he has bowled much better than the statistics suggest. Indeed, on a couple of wicketless days, he has been considered England's best bowler.
It is not as though Ryan Sidebottom has made a convincing case to replace Onions. Sidebottom played his last Test 11 months ago, when he took 1 for 146 in Barbados. He played his last first-class game five months ago. It is to be hoped the selectors hunch does not have an adverse effect on Onions' outlook.