Bairstow and Co save face for England but South Africa fully deserve mace

South Africa's all-round excellence makes them worthy new world leaders

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The Independent Online

Tolerance is not an accessory that comes with losing. Before we dared dream during yesterday's mad, riveting final session the anti-Andrew Strauss tendency was already rumbling. The captain has not had a brilliant year. His two hundreds against the West Indies earned a reprieve but the blood lust is back. At least on Twitter. But before we hang a man prematurely let us first acknowledge the better team, the world's best in fact.

England did not lose this series, they were beaten, well beaten in the end. There is no mystery, just excellence in the fundamentals, which when added together amounts to crushing efficiency. South Africa score runs at the top of the order, reinforce that with a no-frills orthodoxy in the middle and bat long into the tail. In fact Imran Tahir is the tail. The attack is so well balanced, captain Graeme Smith can afford to hold back his most potent weapon, the Usain Bolt-quick Dale Steyn, bringing him on first change. What a haughty message of supremacy that is to send to the oppo.

We should not forget either that South Africa's ascent to the summit of the game was achieved despite the enforced retirement of first choice keeper, Mark Boucher, with a freak eye injury before a ball was bowled in the series. Chink in the armour? Forget it. His loss was rendered as a detail easily absorbed.

To schedule a three-Test series to accommodate some reciprocal one-day deal with Australia was mad. At least it presented South Africa with the opportunity to seal their rise to the top of the world rankings at Lord's, the home of the game as well as their rivals. Adhering to the advice handed down to me by a father reared in Manchester's industrial north, described by one cheeky commentator as a "little Cuba in the foothills of the Pennines" South Africa landed the first punch hard on the other fellow's nose. England were bashed senseless at The Oval by Smith (131), Hashim Amla (311no) and Jacques Kallis (182no). Alviro Petersen (182) weighed in at Headingley, and Amla (121) again here.

Alastair Cook and Kevin Pietersen were the only centurions for England. The latter was a knock of the highest calibre. More than that it was utterly out of step with the mundane contributions of his colleagues, shifting the balance of the contest in Leeds. The point is, South Africa were able to accommodate the one stroke of brilliance they encountered. Had Pietersen's transformative best been available here who knows what difference it would have made. Over five Tests it might have saved the day. If, if, if…

At least the door closing on Pietersen opened for Jonny Bairstow. What a sumptuous cameo it was yesterday: young Bairstow and Jonathan Trott biffing the South African bowlers about the park for a fantastic pre-lunch hour. At 120 for 4, the cucumber sandwiches would have tasted an awful lot better than they might have done. When Bairstow came to the crease, England had only 45 on the board. James Taylor's exit, run out, as one wit pointed out chasing a fourth run on the last day of a Test match England were trying to save, and Ian Bell's tame surrender had given the morning an abject feel. Then for the second successive innings Bairstow injected pace and interest.

Those populating a half-full Lord's were rewarded for their loyalty. A 41-ball fifty was a cream cake with custard that few saw coming. The clipped four off his toes that brought up the half century was his ninth of the innings. There was not a shred of logic supporting the idea that England might win this match, yet you knew that he was not thinking that way. This kid obviously changes in a phone box. As long as he was out in the middle anything was possible. The kryptonite came disguised in low scuttler from Tahir that sneaked beneath his chopping blade. Even then he stopped halfway back to the pavilion as if there might be a no-ball reprieve. Sorry son, not today.

Bairstow had already booked his ticket to India with his first innings 95. The requirement now is to substantiate the proposition, to move on from novel attraction to dependable unit capable of anchoring the middle order. The signs are good. The low, slow trawl around the sub-Continent will test him but the psyche appears sound, the attitude good, and after this, the confidence off the scale.

Bairstow had lit the fuse. Stuart Broad continued with the lost-cause carnival adding a sprightly 37 off 42 balls, falling 10 minutes before tea. Enter Graeme Swann, who forewent the straight bat after one ball, reverse-sweeping Tahir to the Tavern Stand boundary second ball and adding three more for seven off his first over faced. The pyrotechnics accelerated during the post tea party with Matt Prior also weighing in. His recall after holing out in the deep off a Morne Morkel no-ball was a particular delight.

England were effectively acting out on the cricket field the final scenes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, firing bullets in a hail of futility against an enemy armed with cannon balls. It was fun while it lasted, but destined to end badly, on this occasion with Steve Finn edging his first ball to slip to give man of the match Vernon Philander his fifth wicket and a deserved place on the Lord's honours board.

Smith, one fist wrapped around a commemorative stump, raised a finger at the cameras. This is his 10th year as captain. What a moment for him. The margin of victory was 51 runs. Not that he was counting. It was 5.02pm, his team-mates were leaping into each other's arms across the square and the champagne was calling. The last word rightly goes to him. "We've worked hard for this. It's been a long two months and to win the series 2-0 in England at Lord's is a great feeling."


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Test rankings... and who's next

ICC Test rankings:


1 South Africa 120

2 England 117

3 Australia 116

4 Pakistan 109

5 India 104

6 Sri Lanka 98

7 West Indies 90

8 New Zealand 80

9 Bangladesh 0

England's next Test series

Nov-Dec Four-Test series away in India

March 2013 Three-Test series away in New Zealand

May Two-Test series at home to New Zealand

July-Aug Five-Test Ashes series at home to Australia

Nov 2013-Jan 2014 Five-Test Ashes series away in Australia

Stats magic: Series in numbers

15 Wickets taken by Dale Steyn, the most by a player in the series.

37 Andrew Strauss's highest score of the series. In total, he hit 107 runs – 14 players scored more.

11 Dismissals by Matt Prior. AB de Villiers made nine.

32.50 Alastair Cook's batting average in the three Tests, scoring 195 runs.

54 Most runs: by Hashim Amla.

482 Fours hit by Amla, 19 more than any other player.