At 5.01pm yesterday the bejewelled mace became South Africa's property. It felt as though it would not be passing this way again soon. But boy was it good while it lasted.
The presentation on the outfield at Lord's was the official recognition that South Africa are now the world's No 1 Test team, though that has been clear unofficially for weeks. The fifth day of the third Test match progressed along much the same lines as the rest of the series, England hanging on desperately, not waving but drowning and everyone knowing that it was only a matter of time before they were submerged by their opponents.
They kept their head above water for longer than expected and for a few overs in the late afternoon it seemed as though they would be walking on it. Defiant innings by the lower order placed what had seemed inevitable in doubt.
And what drama it was. Jonny Bairstow played another innings of consummate skill and then Matt Prior, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann supplied a flourish that made hearts beat faster. There were several brief periods when the crowd began to believe that England could make the 346 necessary to win the match, level the series and keep the mace. But at every turn, their opponents had an answer to the questions being set when it mattered – the preserve of exceptional teams.
The excitement was at its headiest in seven overs after tea as Prior and Swann merrily whirled away to make 60 runs. A few overs more and who knows? But Swann was narrowly run out dashing for a single. When Prior was caught at cover soon after that really was that. But there was another twist.
Just as he was about to leave the field it was confirmed that Morne Morkel's delivery was a no-ball and back Prior came. It must be his day after all. The moment, however, had gone. The second new ball in the hands of Vernon Philander, the man of the match, finally terminated England's resistance 52 runs short with 20 overs left.
It was a humdinger of a Test match to end a series that was much too brief. England, disrupted in preparation by the imbroglio over Kevin Pietersen, gave it everything they had only to find, as they must have feared by then, that South Africa had more.
Andrew Strauss, England's captain whose future is again uncertain after being in charge of six defeats in 11 matches, did not try to hide from the truth. "South Africa were the better side not just in this Test match but throughout the series and thoroughly deserved their victory," he said.
England had been No 1 for two days short of a year and Strauss said he would not look back on the period with a great deal of fondness. It all started to go wrong as soon as England went out on to the field in Dubai against Pakistan as the world's best team.
"We've had some difficult times and that's a good thing," said Strauss. "You've got to up your game because when you're No 1, people will try and gun you down. We have learned a lot along the way."
This series has provided a salutary lesson about preparation, focus, being in the zone and most of those other phrases that touch on cod psychology but define modern professional sport. South Africa had more of the lot.
For all their endeavour on the last day, England were ultimately disappointing in protecting their status. It is the second successive home series against South Africa that they have lost and the first by two clear matches since Australia won 4-1 11 years ago.
While a close series was always probable, it was perfectly possible at its start to tip England to prevail. Their bad series, in the UAE against Pakistan back in January, was behind them. They had dealt with West Indies straightforwardly in the first home series of the summer. After the first day of the first Test at The Oval, it seemed that everything would be hunky-dory once more. A score of 267 for 3 represented a perfect launch. That was as good as it got.
On the second morning the ball began to swing for the tourists. Maybe they were lucky with weather but they made it work and from then on most things worked for them.
Eventually hammered at The Oval when South Africa made 637 for 2, it was as though England could hardly believe what had happened. Thereafter, it was all they could do to hang on.
The business with Pietersen, still unfinished, was a hindrance that reached a climax at the right time. There are more discussions to take place yet but England seem prepared to decide that he is more trouble than he is worth.
This would be a considerable and controversial step to take but at Lord's it was evident that England missed his runs more than his presence. That it should have come to this but the constant negotiations, the posturing, the column inches, the air time have all taken their toll on England's management.
With any other opponents they might, just, have been able to cope. It is a moot point whether their cricket was less inefficient than it was because South Africa rendered it so. But it was.
Nine catches went down, the batting was again unreliable. It is right that Strauss's position comes under scrutiny after 107 runs in the series. But with two raw batsmen in the middle order England can hardly afford a third at the moment.
Nor is it only Strauss. Alastair Cook scored a century at The Oval but is not in good form, his feet not obeying the commands of his brain. Jonathan Trott was involved in a horrible run out incident with James Taylor yesterday, his second of the series, which does not bespeak an unselfish cricketer. Ian Bell is in one of his diffident phases.
In scoring his second half-century of the match, Bairstow was superb, a model of sound judgement. It was a delight and after his earlier travails a turn-up. England might just have found one.
The bowling did not live up to expectations partly because of South Africa's batting. How England can beat India away this autumn is a mystery for the moment and how they can become No 1 again a greater one. But on the evidence yesterday it will be huge fun watching them try.
Timeline: How the final day at Lord's ended
11.23am: Wicket; England 34-3; Bell 4
Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott look uncomfortable and, after Trott finally registers England's first boundaries of the innings, Bell edges Vernon Philander to Graeme Smith who briefly juggles it but holds on.
11.59am: Wicket; England 45-4; Taylor 4
England are throwing this away – James Taylor is disastrously run out after a mix-up with Trott leaves the Test debutant stranded.
12.35pm: Review; England 81-4
Jonny Bairstow looks in fine fettle but only narrowly survives an lbw appeal from Morne Morkel which goes to review.
12.56pm: Trott fifty; England 114-4
Trott brings up his half-century to heartfelt applause. He has refocused himself well after the run-out debacle with Taylor but his work is far from done with England still needing more than 200.
1.01pm: Lunch; England 120-4
Trott and Bairstow see out the first session, with England still 226 short. The reckoning is that this pair must put on another 100 if England are to have any chance.
1.45pm: Bairstow fifty; England 132-4
Yorkshire's Bairstow also reaches 50 – for the second time in the match following his first-innings 95 - by flicking Philander through the leg side.
1.49pm: Wicket; England 134-5; Bairstow 54
Pitching into the rough outside leg stump, Imran Tahir gets one to keep low and bowls Bairstow. England's last realistic hopes have probably retreated to the pavilion with him.
2.21pm: Wicket; England 146-6; Trott 63
Jacques Kallis pulls off a stunning slip catch to end Trott's innings and take South Africa to the verge of England's No 1 Test ranking.
2.38pm: Drinks; England 174-6
Miracles are required from Stuart Broad and Matt Prior, but they start positively with Broad hooking Dale Steyn for a four and a six before the break.
3.30pm Wicket England 208-7; Broad 37
After a series of short balls, Jacques Kallis finally provokes Stuart Broad into a wild hook and the resulting top-edge is caught by Hashim Amla running in from fine leg.
3.44pm Tea England 221-7
After two typically flashy boundaries from Graeme Swann, tea comes with England needing 125 from 33 overs – with the second new ball imminent.
4.13pm England 246-7
Swann and Matt Prior edge England closer but the spinner is living dangerously: he is nearly run out, then survives an lbw appeal from Imran Tahir – before hitting him for a maximum.
4.18pm: Prior fifty; England 255-7
Unusually, Prior has allowed Swann to be the main aggressor in the partnership but he reaches his fifty by reverse-sweeping Tahir for four. England need less than 100 now but surely can afford no more mistakes.
4.29pm: Wicket; England 276-8; Swann 41
Swann fearlessly pulls Kallis for six but is then run out attempting to steal a single off Tahir. England require 66 now.
4.37pm: England 284-8
Prior is granted an astonishing reprieve after an ungainly swing is skied and JP Duminy catches comfortably. But replays show that Morne Morkel overstepped in delivery.
4.52pm: England 289-8
James Anderson is nearly run out two minutes after South Africa again think they have Prior. This time he survives an agonisingly close stumping call off Tahir, his foot perhaps just brushing the line.
4.59pm: Wicket; England 294-9; Prior 73
Just as he did on Sunday evening, Vernon Philander makes the new ball count as Prior nicks one into Graeme Smith's hands at slip.
5.01pm: Wicket; England 294; Finn 0
Philander gets his name on the five-for honours board, sealing the victory when Steven Finn edges his first ball to Kallis.
Jeremy CulleyReuse content