Hosts' status slips but real tragedy is that this is not a five-Test series

Long form of the game reveals its true beauty in epic arm-wrestle for world No 1 ranking

Anybody still think a substandard one-day series with Australia in June was a good idea? The real sadness unfolding here at Lord's is not the loss of England's standing as the best team in the world, but that their demotion will have been decided over three Tests. If it holds that a man can never have a surfeit of money or beauty in his parlour, then it follows he can never have enough cricket of this quality in his summer. Just three Tests between the top two sides in the world is self-evidently insufficient, a bit like pulling Ali and Frazier after six rounds in Madison Square Garden. Exactly: you would never dream of doing it.

While we leave open the possibility of a miracle of an ending today, we know that in South African company, English romance is unlikely to flourish. Once South Africa wriggled off the spike that was 54 for 4 on the opening day, England's chances of victory in this match convinced only in abstraction. You could see how they might get home, but never really felt that they actually would. It proved to be an immense arm-wrestle, with England having to recover from their own 54 for 4 nadir. But against a side with marginally bigger biceps and a rock with human characteristics called Hashim Amla, the demand was always a tad too steep.

So, we are left to rejoice in the moments when hope soared, as it did for a volcanic hour yesterday, and from nowhere. Initially, a combination of sun, Chablis and Amla's crushing adhesion had anaesthetised the majority of spectators in this cricketing crucible. Those who had not succumbed to the post-lunch slumber fanned away the ridiculous heat with anything upon which they could lay their hands. The new ball had been taken; this was theoretically a time of uncertainty, vulnerability even, for the opposition batsmen. South Africa responded by putting yet another brick in the wall, doubling up on the required amounts of application and watchfulness.

And then cricket did its thing. Out of the haze, running down the slope, came Steve Finn. The crowd didn't know it, but 1,000 volts was about to shoot through the afternoon. Amla, he of the unbeaten 311 in the first Test, the game's limpet champion, was turned square by a 90mph leg-break. The ball pitched on middle and took the off bail. The great Amla, who threatened to drain the life out of this contest with his oppressive certainty, was no more.

When next you are in the situation of having to justify this game to our American brethren, or any heathen who cannot fathom the five-day draw, a recollection of this episode will serve you well. A dozen deliveries later Finn had his first look at AB de Villiers, and with a new cherry in his hands. De Villiers, dropped on eight by Jimmy Anderson off the bowling of Graeme Swann, had managed to swerve the delights of the Middlesex rapier until this fiery introduction.

This would turn out to be some "How do you do?" The ball took a resounding edge straight into the bucket mitts of Stuart Broad. A duel that was apparently drifting towards an inexorable conclusion was suddenly stood upon its head. A score of 259 for 3 had become 268 for 5; absolutely no one in the crowd had cause to doze now.

With this mighty passage of play did cricket define itself, a game of shifting fortunes blown along by turns unforeseen. With two new batsmen at the crease and Finn sending down torpedoes on a fourth-day wicket encouraging the ball to dance at both ends, English optimism was renewed. We were approaching Andrew Flintoff territory, conjuring memories of his Ashes valedictory, when Jacques Rudolph edged to Matt Prior for Finn's fourth wicket of the innings. At the other end, Swann made the ball hiss and spit with the malevolence of old and England were a force again, playing the game on their terms.

In the field, Finn's electrifying spell made goalkeepers out of England's outfielders, throwing themselves at anything that came within half a mile of their bootlaces. For an exceptional save – as in the Finn example off Broad's bowling – there would be a congratulatory salute from the diminutive James Taylor, skipping across the square from his short-leg posting to touch hands. As for Swann, they came surrounding the bat. This was England's chance to secure for another term the finest address in world cricket: No 1 Quality Street. Still a longish shot, of course.

With tea approaching, the South Africa lead was building towards 300. The target was already looking steep, and this with only four sessions remaining. At least there was hope, which was beyond forlorn when Amla was at the crease.

England's refusal to bow to the inevitable was a further blow to the prospects of Kevin Pietersen, whose stock received another downgrade with his duck for Surrey. It just had to be golden and the product of left-arm spin, didn't it? If there is a positive twist for Pietersen in all of this, it is to be found perhaps in the incipient sense of sympathy brewing for a bloke impossibly down on his luck. Pietersen as victim; who would have thought that a couple of weeks ago, when he was embellishing his legend at Headingley? Alas, there is no accounting for hubris and the vengeance of the fates.

As the shadows reached out across the late afternoon, England continued to charge in. Anderson tempted the marvellous Vernon Philander into a flourish, providing Jonny Bairstow with a champagne moment at backward point, where he took a clean catch for South Africa's eighth wicket. In his next over, Anderson persuaded umpire Simon Taufel to send Morne Morkel back from whence he came, only for the review to show the ball had bounced off the batsman's helmet, not his bat. Still, the end was coming.

The problem with said end was the torrid hour with which it left England to negotiate, in awkward light with the ball doing plenty. England were already two down when Graeme Smith chucked the ball to Dale Steyn at the start of the fifth over. Alistair Cook and Andrew Strauss would not have enjoyed the highlights, both falling lbw to Philander, the captain trapped with bat raised in symbolic surrender.