England yesterday enjoyed one of the great days of Test cricket. From morning until the curtailed evening, everything went right and by the close of the fourth day of the second Test they needed only four South African wickets to take a crucial lead in this series and were ahead by 156 runs.
Had it been a simulation of how events in a Test match should go for a team seeking victory it could hardly have been more perfect. The tourists took their lead to 232 before declaring with one wicket left – itself always slightly irritating for the opposition – and then made swift and incisive inroads into South Africa's acclaimed top order.
Ian Bell, the much criticised batsman who in some opinions was playing for his Test career, established England's dominant position before Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad (right) dismantled the home side's aspirations of securing a draw on a benign pitch.
Bell made 141, his ninth and most significant Test century. He batted for five hours and was rarely troubled after the first carefully negotiated dozen of the 227 balls he faced. Swann, who has taken to Test cricket as if he was born for it, and Broad, who is vying with him to be the new poster boy of a renaissant English game, each took three wickets as South Africa wilted under the immense pressure of being so far adrift.
Bell recognised what a seminal innings he had played, while Broad and Swann were both prevented from commenting on the virtues of their performance by an England management determined to finish the job but whose protection of their players missed the point. "We'll be all ready and raring to go from ball one on the last day," Bell said. "But it's not the type of pitch where you can chase it, we have to put the ball in the right place and not make things too complicated."
If Bell, who had not scored a hundred for 20 Test innings since July last year against the same opposition at Lord's, was rebuffing much of the criticism which has been levelled at him, Broad was laying a bogey. The last time he bowled at the Kingsmead ground, he was struck for six sixes in an over by India's Yuvraj Singh of India in a Twenty20 match.
It was a performance which not so much blotted out the past as paid no heed to it. In nine overs of deadly accurate, simple bowling, Broad took three wickets for 18. "We actually joked about the six sixes before the game and that sort of thing doesn't faze him at all," Bell said. "Stuart will run in for England all day, he's just got that sort of character. With his height and the length he bowls, he's tricky for any batsman, a bit like Glenn McGrath."
For Swann, it was a normal day at the office. As is the norm he struck in his first over and breached South Africa's defences to the point of utter panic. He put Ashwell Prince's immediate career under threat by having him caught at silly point, bamboozled Hashim Amla with one that turned and finally ensnared the opposition's last hope, their captain, Graeme Smith.
Broad accounted for Jacques Kallis and in successive balls A B De Villiers and J P Duminy. It was highly charged and it put England, against the side that lays claims to being the best in the world, in a wonderful position.