In the end, England did it. On the penultimate afternoon of the series, in their 773rd over, they managed to dismiss South Africa twice in the same match. This is usually a requirement to have a sniff of winning a Test.
What a struggle it was to secure those 20 wickets. The thought might have occurred to Kevin Pietersen, England's new captain, that chewing biltong was an easier proposition. South Africa resisted for almost 100 more overs in their second innings, until shortly after 5pm when Paul Collingwood swooped low at third slip to send back Makhaya Ntini.
From the outset a month ago, the tourists had been determined to sell their wickets dearly and after the first innings at Lord's it was an undertaking they never forgot. Unless you count the first innings of the final Test, when they were still so exultant (or something like that) from clinching the series that some of them might not have known what day it was, let alone what guard they were taking.
All that was behind them yesterday. Led by the admirable, indomitable AB de Villiers they dug in ferociously, intent on frustrating Pietersen and England. Considering the new captain was easily at his most animated, waving his arms and clearly living every moment through his facial expressions, they seemed to have succeeded.
It had seemed improbable in the morning, when Stephen Harmison bowled ferociously from the Pavilion End. His eight rapid and intimidating overs comprised perhaps the best pound for pound spell he has assembled since the Ashes series in 2005. This was the Harmison of yore and he accounted for Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis. But he roughed them all up.
Naturally, the other SJ Harmison, also from Ashington and of Durham and England, had to show up later on. This unwanted interloper, some kind of aberrant identical twin, could not quite poop the party but the accuracy, and thus much of the ferocity, had gone.
Four bowlers or five, it has been incessantly tough for England's bowlers in this series. But since they needed five finally to take all 20 wickets and since they all took at least one wicket that may have to be the path the selectors tread from now on, should they work out a route.
To illustrate how tough it has been it is, unfortunately, necessary to recall the triumphant Ashes series once more. In 2005, in five Tests against Australia, England took 89 wickets and bowled the tourists out twice on three occasions, failing by one wicket on the fourth. It took them 755.3 overs to do so.
In this series against South Africa, they have bowled 772.3 overs in four matches and taken 48 wickets. Yet in only one of their first innings have South Africa made over 400. Maybe, without De Villiers yesterday, they would have struggled.
De Villiers seems to bolster the case for playing six batsmen, since he has scored 384 runs from No 6 this summer. He might have revealed a weakness yesterday, however. Approaching his seventh Test century he was out for a fifth time in the 90s, playing recklessly against Monty Panesar. That might be the answer: let him cruise to the 90s. Getting him for a duck seems unlikely, since has yet to make one in 77 Test innings.
England's most successful bowler yesterday was Stuart Broad who took 3 for 44. But at last England had 20 of South Africa's wickets. They must now ensure that South Africa do not reciprocate.Reuse content