In this age of swift judgement and instant gratification, it is fashionable to suggest that this or that recent event was the greatest of all time. However modest the achievement and artificial the excitement, matches, races, goals, innings, soap-opera plots and probably binge-drinking sessions are all granted a historical significance that fades in about a week.
With that caveat in mind, 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. South Africa were as efficient and merciless as England were feckless and timid.
It was the fifth time that a side had won a Test match having lost only two wickets, the first in which it had happened against England. With only two matches to go in the series, they must win at least one and draw the other to retain their hard-earned status, which is beginning to look decidedly ropey.
The evidence of the approach that both teams brought to the first Test is a harsh indicator of how tough it will be. Not impossible, of course, because England played some outstanding cricket to reach the summit.
Their bowlers should be allowed some leeway. Only five times in the past 25 Test matches have they failed to take all 20 of their opponents' wickets, in only four of the most recent 50 have they failed to bowl them out in the first innings. But the fact that 780 runs have been scored while they have taken their last three wickets in Test cricket – West Indies put on 143 for their 10th at Edgbaston – suggests that form has been temporarily mislaid.
Slightly different parameters must be applied in judging the batsmen. Earlier this year in the UAE, they were almost wholly responsible for the 3-0 defeat against Pakistan with which England began their tenure as the top-ranked side.
Then, they were outsmarted by Saeed Ajmal's high-calibre spin, in this match they appeared not to possess either the temperament or skill to do what was necessary.
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. Most were to ill-advised shots that were poorly executed, which amounts to shoddy Test match batting.
Four wickets to the bad at the start of the fifth day, it was imperative that England reached lunch without further loss if they were to save their bacon. In the event, they lost one but in reducing the deficit to 75 had given themselves more than a smidgeon of hope.
Ravi Bopara was the only victim of the morning session, playing a back-foot forcing shot to a wide, short ball which he somehow managed to drag on to his stumps. If it was unlucky, it was also not necessarily the action of a man trying to save a Test match.
Bopara deserved this recall to the colours, his fourth opportunity in a Test career of only 13 matches and he elicits enormous goodwill because of his attractive style and his equally pleasant personality. But he is running out of chances and the insipid manner of his dismissals can only make the rest of this series more fraught for him.
Somewhere along the line in the next three weeks he needs a hundred or something approaching it.
But his departure, while disappointing, was not the end of the issue for England. 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. This was a high-class craftsman at work.
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 Prior swept at Imran Tahir and managed only a looping top edge to slip. The big question was, why? And if the answer came that he was playing his natural game then it will not do.
The second new ball did duly arrive and Dale Steyn exploited its shine and bounce with frightening efficiency. His second ball saw Bell trying to steer the ball down to third man, but this reckoned without the extra bounce and he was caught easily at slip. It was a poor end to a selfless, skilful innings, though he had been dropped behind off Tahir when on 20.
That was about that. Steyn quickly accounted for Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann to finish with five wickets in an innings for the 18th time and it was all over before tea when Tahir had Jimmy Anderson lbw.
South Africa went into a celebratory huddle and England's worry was that it was the best side in the world doing so.
Timeline: how England succumbed to a crushing defeat
11.01am Start Ravi Bopara and Ian Bell are in the middle for England, trailing the visitors by 150 runs and aiming to salvage a draw. Dale Steyn gets a hint of early swing but Bell plays out the first over for a maiden.
11.31am Wicket, England 117-5 Bopara 22. Minutes after leaving a Steyn delivery which misses his offstump by 8mm, the Essex batsman drags a wide one from the same bowler on to his stumps.
2.14pm Half century, England 200-5 Bell brings up 50 showing enough application and skill – in partnership with Matt Prior – to raise genuine hopes of saving the match. Only 52 is needed to make South Africa bat again.
2.23pm Wicket, England 203-6 Prior 40. Again with the dreaded sweep. Out of nowhere, Prior tries to go after Imran Tahir's leg spin. However, some extra bounce defeats him, the ball hits his glove and he is caught at slip.
2.49pm Wicket, England 210-7 Bell 55. Out goes England's last recognised batsman and with it any chance of a draw. Within two overs of taking the second new ball of the innings, Bell guides it to slip off Steyn.
3.15pm Wickets, England 218-9 Broad 0, Swann 7
After dismissing Broad for a duck, Steyn gets his first five-wicket Test haul in England when Swann sends a lofted drive straight to Alviro Petersen at extra cover.
3.56pm Wicket, England 240 all out Anderson 4.The last-wicket pair battle valiantly enough for tea to be delayed but it is all over when Tahir has James Anderson trapped lbw to give the tourists victory by an innings and 12 runs.
The Oval scoreboard
First Test (Final day of five): South Africa beat England by an innings and 12 runs
England won toss
ENGLAND First Innings 385 (Cook 115, Trott 71, Prior 60, Morkel 4-72)
SOUTH AFRICA First Innings 637-2 dec. (Amla 311no, Kallis 182no, Smith 131)
ENGLAND Second Innings Overnight 102-4
I R Bell c Kallis b Steyn 55
220 balls 6 fours
R S Bopara b Steyn 22
55 balls 3 fours
†M J Prior c Kallis b Tahir 40
86 balls 5 fours
T T Bresnan not out 20
61 balls 2 fours
S C J Broad c de Villiers b Steyn 0
G P Swann c Petersen b Steyn 7
9 balls 1 four
J M Anderson lbw b Tahir 4
24 balls 1 four
Extras (b11 lb15 w1 nb12) 39
Total (97 overs) 240
Fall: 1-2, 2-32, 3-57, 4-67, 5-117, 6-203, 7-210, 8-210, 9-218.
Bowling: M Morkel: 16-0-41-1 (1nb, 1wd) (2-0-3-0; 5-0-20-1; 6-0-11-0; 3-0-7-0), V D Philander: 19-6-29-1 (1nb) (5-1-7-1; 4-1-6-0; 5-3-8-0; 5-1-8-0), D W Steyn: 21-6-56-5 (5-0-20-1; 4-2-7-0; 5-3-13-1; 3-0-8-0; 4-1-8-3), Imran Tahir: 32-7-63-3 (6nb) (12-2-23-1; 5-2-8-0; 4-1-12-0; 7-2-12-1; 4-0-8-1), J H Kallis: 7-1-22-0 (3-0-12-0; 4-1-10-0), J P Duminy: 2-1-3-0 (one spell).
Progress: Final day: 150 in 57.2 overs, Lunch: 177-5 in 66 overs (I Bell 36, M Prior 29), 200 in 73.6 overs. Bell: 50 off 189 balls (5 fours).
Umpires: Asad Rauf (Pakistan) & S J Davis (Australia).
TV Umpire: H D P K Dharmasena (Sri Lanka).
Match Referee: J J Crowe (New Zealand).
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