Aprivileged career has taken this observer to all parts, sending back bulletins on sports across the cannon. The shiver-ometer has been rattled many a time by the deeds of gifted souls, not least in the fortnight just passed. And right up there with the best of them a moment served up yesterday in the heart of London. You didn't really have to appreciate cricket that much to register that something special was unfolding in St John's Wood. As long as you understood the concept of best versus best, the dots were easy to join.
Shortly after midday, with the South African tail snipped, Andrew Strauss jogged down the pavilion steps on to cricket's sacred turf. Is there a more beautiful setting in sport? His 100th Test, 50th as captain, at Lord's, square bathed in sunshine. A 6ft 8in South African quick coming off a long run. A loosener going down leg to get you off the mark. How many of us in our short-trousered youth have not imagined that to be us? Garside of Lancashire and England coming out to bat. In the schoolboy dreamscape the ball is smashed away through the covers for four, but on this day of days Strauss was delighted to be away with a feathered clip to backward square.
This is a game England must win to retain their status as the premier act in Test cricket. Ranged against them a relentless force of fearsome potency. To know what is coming does not make dealing with the challenge any more straightforward. Like their rugby brothers, South Africa tend to do things by numbers, rehearsed excellence recurring. Morne Morkel's opening delivery was a gift for Strauss, and for us in exemplifying how he goes about his business.
There is about the England captain an air of establishment authority and calm. He seeks not the limelight, nor the glory, only to do the right thing. And with luck and due diligence, to get the job done. If he happens to be the story, the attention is received as an inconvenience, something to be tolerated. In another life he would be sat behind a desk in some Commonwealth posting overseeing the nitty gritty of empire, putting the interests of others above his own.
The personal landmarks at the heart of this conflict will not have been given house room in the mind of Strauss as he readied himself to bat. Watch the ball, move the feet, leave the wide ones, bat through to lunch; these and like-minded thoughts will have been his focus. He was off at a fair clip, too, smiting anything off his legs for four. Vernon Philander's second ball flew up the hill. No need to chase after that. A Morkel delivery went in the next over, racing down the slope towards the Tavern Stand. Twenty on the board inside five overs. What on earth was all the fuss about?
The fuss was about to introduce itself. Morkel was just as likely to fling one a yard wide as hit the spot from the Nursery End. He is tall and quick, and when he gets it right the batsman is more often than not a passenger. Strauss was warned earlier in the piece when Morkel got one to leave him up the slope. "You know you are in good nick if you get an edge on one of them," observed Alec Stewart on Test Match Special. The gaffer made a century at Old Trafford on his 100th Test appearance, against the West Indies. That was the fairy story we had come to applaud yesterday. After his handling of the unwanted Kevin Pietersen pantomime, a captain's ton would have done very nicely, thank you.
And then in ran Morkel to remind us how quickly the sporting script can change, and to reintroduce to us the idea that South Africa were not here for the glorification of English cricket but to embellish their own story. The ball nipped back off a length, bowling Strauss through the gate. It was a beauty and proved the last action of the morning, a cruel blow for the England captain, whose innings had begun with such vim, and a vital strike for a team desperate to win this match.
His exit for a mere 20 brought Jonathan Trott to the crease and might just have added a yard of pace to the South African attack. Twelve years ago he was one of them, a contemporary of captain Graeme Smith, representing the country of his birth and upbringing through the age groups until Under-19 level. Trott is, like Pietersen, a convenient Englishman. No blame attaches to him for taking advantage of eligibility rules. That is a systemic issue. His gene pool is British, as is his wife, but his dreams come to him across the mountains of Stellenbosch, shaped through the prism of Western Province.
A full, quick delivery from Dale Steyn slammed into Trott's front pad, pinning him to the crease. The umpire thought him not out. Steyn and Smith reckoned otherwise. The review system proved them right. Trott was on his way with the hour yet to strike two.
There is no more fearsome sight in the modern game than Steyn steaming in, elbows at right angles, snorting menace. He can't bowl at left-handers, apparently. That's one to take up with Alastair Cook, perhaps. Cook was playing the bowler not the ball. The runs were not coming. The ball was slanting across him a touch wide. He knew he shouldn't have chased it but it was too good an opportunity to miss. If only he had. Steyn had his second wicket in the space of four balls.
With the score at 54 for the loss of four wickets, England shared the territory occupied by South Africa on the opening day. The match had come full circle. In times of crisis are heroes born. Romance cast Strauss in the starring role. Reality took a different view, inviting Ian Bell and Jonny Bairstow to audition for the part of leading man. Both raised bats in celebration of fifties, to be met by cheers on the England balcony, led by you know who.