Prince provides delicate touch as Smith's heavy mob tumble

It was mostly a grey July day at Lord's yesterday. Cold too; two of England's fielders called for long-sleeved sweaters in the third over of the morning, only to be thoroughly warmed up two balls later when Graeme Smith, on seven, misjudged a sharplyrising ball from Jimmy Anderson and dollied a catch off the splice to Ian Bell at point.

Compared to the carnival atmosphere of the previous two days, when England's batsmen played with flash and dash to score 593 for 8 declared, the crowd was quiet and attentive. England broke through but in the sunlight – which would envelop Lord's in the evening – South Africa fought back, led by the example of Ashwell Prince. Then England came back again after Anderson did a passable imitation of Gordon Banks to catch AB de Villiers at mid-on.

That was one of few electric moments – Prince's hundred was another – but there was hardly a dull one. Of course it helped that England were doing much better than expected, but if Test cricket is to be drowned in an excess of Twenty20, what we will be losing is the example of Prince, the first non-white South African to score a hundred at Lord's. He kept his head while all around him were losing theirs.

Prince is a stocky and compact figure, a left-hander who said: "Although the pitch was still good for batting it was hard work playing [Monty] Panesar out of the rough. But I had a lot of confidence coming after two decent scores in county games."

He came in when South Africa had lost three wickets for 47 and he refused to be intimidated by his surroundings. He slashed at balls his coach might have preferred him to leave, but his luck was in and most of his 13 fours were from textbook shots, especially off his legs.

He was finally out, slashing again, caught by the wicketkeeper Tim Ambrose off Ryan Sidebottom when he was 101. By then the score had moved on to 245, although it still represented dire straits for South Africa, who were all out two runs later, 346 behind.

Prince was at the crease for 294 minutes and played the kind of innings that will become a memory if Test cricket is truly in terminal decline. The reason is that it takes time – ideally five days – for the topsy-turvy quality of the game to assert itself. Already this series has shown that expectations provide a poor guide to the reality of events, and no one will be more conscious of this than Graeme Smith.

The South Africa captain speaks freely of his own recently acquired maturity. This is no longer considered a controversial assessment. Smith's days of trying to establish mastery over Michael Vaughan by referring to him as "queer" seem to have been replaced by a more dignified silence in the middle. Smith is still on a learning curve and he is enduring a steep stretch of the journey here.

Since their readmission to Test cricket in 1992 South Africa have won three times here, each one by humiliatingly wide margins – 356 runs, 10 wickets, and an innings and 92 runs. Their expectations in this game were astonishingly high. These had been encouraged by Mickey Arthur, South Africa's coach, who further fuelled the idea that England were underdogs by emphasising their lack of pace and suspect middle order.

True, Smith had started the game with fewer illusions than his coach. He injured a hamstring playing in the Indian Premier League and had no time in the middle before the game against Middlesex last weekend. "Recently it's been a battle with injuries," he said. "It's going to be a challenge." To be frank, he has failed to meet it so far. (Both Smith and Jacques Kallis, incidentally, look rather heavier than super-fit international cricketers ought to.)

The unexpected quality of England's performance has set the series off to a promising start. Normally, England have to recover from their defeat at Lord's and establish parity in later Tests as South African players grow weary and begin to choke. But England against South Africa is one of Test cricket's most admired products: "It's really up there with the Ashes," says Vaughan.

After two days in the field, Arthur was apologetic: "We haven't delivered. We're aware of it. England did not see the best of us." He suggested that the explanation was that this young team – only Smith, Mark Boucher and Makhaya Ntini played in the last South African team at Lord's – behaved like tourists, open-mouthed at the sight of Lord's full to capacity. Butboxers would have a different way of explaining their poor performance: they left the fight in the gym.