Suddenly, all is tickety-boo with England. Whether their improbable surge has been caused by the Pietersen factor, South African lassitude, or the desire to emulate British Olympians is difficult to tell – possibly a combination of all three – but so far only one team has turned up in this one-day series.
In dismissing South Africa for 83 yesterday and reaching their target with all wickets intact, England made a nonsense of the world rankings and of the less mathematically solid proposition that they are completely hopeless at limited overs cricket. Two matches under Kevin Pietersen's leadership and 19 gold medals in Beijing, and anything looks possible.
The hero of Trent Bridge was Stuart Broad, who took 5 for 23 in 10 impressively incisive overs and became the second youngest England bowler to reach 50 one-day wickets and, at 22 years and 63 days, the youngest, by two years, to take five wickets in an innings. There were records at the other end too where Matthew Prior became only the second England keeper (after Alec Stewart) to take six catches in a one-day match. Although such judgements are subjective, one of his takes, diving wide and high to his left, was simply stunning and probably in the top 10 of all England keepers' one-day catches. Broad bowled quickly and straight. He was always a handful for batsmen who looked as though they would rather be anywhere than Trent Bridge. South Africa began this series with a genuine prospect of becoming, deservedly, the number one one-day team in the world. Having won nine consecutive matches they were closing in on Australian hegemony, which would have made the expected defeat much easier to bear for England followers. To take the top spot, the tourists had to win 5-0 or 4-1, both of which seemed eminently feasible only five days ago. As it is, England might fancy their own chances of moving from seventh where they have rightly languished for long enough, to fourth. It might seem perverse to suggest it, but perhaps South Africa's cause has not been helped by the postponement of the Champions Trophy in Pakistan. While the International Cricket Council's decision was widely applauded, South Africa now know they are homeward bound. Instead of having to head for the sub-continent, as they would have done had the Trophy proceeded, it is as if they can smell brai and biltong again. The lure of overtaking Australia was palpably insufficient. Their main mission of the summer was not to win the NatWest Series (bless it) but the Test rubber, which they did in style.
Since doing so, South Africa's foot, perhaps inadvertently, has been off the gas, while somebody has been nicking their fuel. It is a salutary reminder about what matters to big-time cricketers. For instance, had the Test series followed the one-day series – which was not exactly supported by television rights holders who have other, bigger football fish to fry come early August – and South Africa had won the first of them, they would not remotely have considered their job to have been done.
It is a prompt to many people, not least those who are besotted by the cheap and potent music that is Twenty20, that Test cricket still has a uniquely significant allure to the most crucial rump, the players. Of course, all that will be nonsense if South Africa come back to win 3-2.