To general astonishment – and that was merely their own reaction – England seized control of the Test series against South Africa yesterday. The conception was a classic of its kind, the execution was impeccable: create scoreboard pressure by studiously accumulating a large first-innings lead and then move in for a swift kill.
England followed this age-old method to perfection. First, they took their first innings to 575, putting them 232 runs ahead, and then in an hour of destructive, accurate bowling against players uncertain of their options, Graeme Swann and Stuart Broad cut a swathe through the cream of South Africa's batting.
At the close of the fourth day of the second Test, South Africa were 76 for 6, still trailing by 156 runs. This represented a recovery from the wreckage of 50 for 6 but they still have 98 overs to negotiate. It is all over bar the shouting, though from South Africa, improbably, only whimpers have been heard so far.
England were exemplary almost from start to finish, albeit that Paul Collingwood was ruled out for the day having dislocated a finger warming up in the morning. The easier part of their task was to establish daylight between themselves and their opponents but the fashion in which Ian Bell fulfilled his obligation was wonderful to behold.
Bell has always been pleasing on the eye, often before contriving some ugly way to get out, but yesterday after playing himself in once more he played a versatile and subtle innings which enabled his team to open a wide gap. It was his ninth Test century, his fifth at No 6 and one that backed up the decision to play six batsmen.
Then came the drama. Memories initially went back to Lord's last year when South Africa responded to a first-innings deficit of 346 by batting for two days in their second and losing only three wickets. There was never the remotest chance of a reprise.
The early overs were safely overcome but South Africa must have feared, albeit subliminally, the entry into the attack of Swann. He has taken wickets in the first overs of spells from the moment he entered Test cricket little more than a year ago. So he did again. Ashwell Prince, looking increasingly like the makeshift opener he is, prodded at a ball while stuck in his crease and the resultant inside edge on to pad was grasped inches from the ground by Bell at short point.
On the stroke of tea, Hashim Amla essayed a curiously ambitious drive and was bowled. Four minutes after it, Jacques Kallis shouldered arms to a ball from Broad that cut back viciously and struck his off stump. Shortly after, AB de Villiers, having survived one review of an umpiring decision when England's appeal against a refused catch behind was rejected, lost his own review of a leg before verdict, the ball again cutting back.
Foolhardily, JP Duminy tried to leave the next ball but it too cut back, took his inside edge and cannoned into the stumps. The last time Broad played at Durban he was hit for six sixes in an over by Yuvraj Singh of India in a Twenty20 match. Then he could do no right, now he could do no wrong. Graeme Smith was all now that stood between England and victory and Swann removed him with a peach that breached the forward defensive prod. Smith's decision to refer can have been based only on desperation.
There was a chance then that England could win the match and lead the series on the fourth evening, but Mark Boucher dug doughtily in and Morne Morkel somehow kept out Swann. Bad light terminated South Africa's misery, temporarily anyway, with 17 overs of the day remaining.
Far from looking toothless as many had feared, England's attack, at least as exemplified by Broad and Swann, was incisive and intelligent. Swann has now taken 52 Test wickets in 2009 and only the world cricketer of the year Mitchell Johnson has taken more. He brings a lovely variety, intelligence and joy to his bowling which has been irresistible in several ways.
As for Broad, he threatened to bowl one of those spells which brought the Ashes home last August. He has made much of his intention to keep it simple by aiming to hit the top of off stump and in finding the right length he was a real handful for a few overs on a pitch still without much life. All this was made possible by earlier events. South Africa rued their misfortunes earlier in the day when they regularly passed English bats and again were much too generous in their fielding lapses. Before he had really got going for the day Matt Prior was put down by Prince at gully off Makhaya Ntini. It was a hard chance but hard chances need taking.
Bell and Prior grew in assurance and took their partnership to 112 when Prior, after reaching his 50 with a six, chopped on. Broad was oddly muted, Swann came out like the dashing cavalier as always and Bell's serenity was impressive by now.
The strokes came on both sides of the wicket, off front and back foot. True, he still has not been the only centurion in an England innings. But this hundred may not only have saved his career but given England a golden and unexpected chance of a 1-0 lead.
Durban (Fourth day of five)
South Africa trail England by 156 runs with four second-innings wickets remaining
South Africa won toss
SOUTH AFRICA First Innings 343 (Smith 75, Kallis 75, de Villiers 50, Swann 4-110).
ENGLAND First Innings
Overnight: 386-5 (Cook 118, Collingwood 91)
I R Bell c Boucher b Steyn......... 141
227 balls 11 fours 1 six
†M J Prior b Duminy......... 60
81 balls 6 fours 1 six
S C J Broad c Kallis b Duminy......... 20
59 balls 1 four 1 six
G P Swann c Prince b Steyn......... 22
14 balls 2 fours 1 six
J M Anderson not out......... 1
G Onions not out......... 2
Extras (lb 10, w 6, nb 1)......... 17
Total (9 wkts dec, 170 overs)......... 575
Fall: 1-71 (Strauss), 2-104 (Trott), 3-155 (Pietersen), 4-297 (Cook), 5-365 (Collingwood), 6-477 (Prior), 7-535 (Broad), 8-565 (Swann), 9-569 (Bell).
Bowling: Steyn 34-6-94-2, Ntini 29-4-115-0, Morkel 31-6-78-3 (w3), Kallis 14-1-43-0 (nb1), Harris 38-4-146-1 (w1), Duminy 24-1-89-3.
SOUTH AFRICA Second Innings
A G Prince c Bell b Swann......... 16
28 balls 1 four
*G C Smith lbw b Swann......... 22
56 balls 2 fours
H M Amla b Swann......... 6
13 balls 1 four
J H Kallis b Broad......... 3
A B de Villiers lbw b Broad......... 2
J P Duminy b Broad......... 0
†M V Boucher not out......... 20
41 balls 3 fours
M Morkel not out......... 7
34 balls 1 four
Total (6 wkts, 32 overs)......... 76
Fall: 1-27 (Prince), 2-37 (Amla), 3-40 (Kallis), 4-44 (de Villiers), 5-44 (Duminy), 6-50 (Smith).
To bat: P L Harris, M Ntini, D W Steyn.
Bowling: Anderson 7-1-24-0, Onions 4-1-12-0, Swann 12-3-22-3, Broad 9-2-18-3.
Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pak) & A M Saheba (India).
TV replay umpire: S J Davis (Aus).
Turning points How the action unfolded on day four
10.12am Prior gets away with it During a solid spell for the hosts, Matt Prior on 23 is dropped off Paul Harris.
10.41am England develop a lead A single pushed by Ian Bell to the leg side takes England's lead past 100.
11.06am Bell tolls for South Africa With an effortless lofted drive over mid-on Bell reaches his ninth Test ton, his first for nearly 18 months.
11.32am 500 reasons to cheer England pass 500 for the first time since their tour of the West Indies last spring.
1.02pm Visitors pull ahead England's lead hits 200.
1.27pm Declaration England declare, 232 ahead.
2.24pm Swann's flying start Swann strikes in his first over as Prince is caught off bat and pad.
3.05pm England seize prize Kallis shoulders arms to a ball from Broad, which swings back a little to clip off stump.
3.16pm First a bad review... England ask for a review of a catch behind against A B De Villiers. It is struck down.
3.24pm ...then a good one But it doesn't matter – the review system works against South Africa next over when De Villiers appeals unsuccessfully against an lbw verdict.
3.37pm Captain joins the fallen Smith is palpably lbw to Swann and a review merely delays the inevitable.
4.22pm Brief respite The seventh-wicket pair have hung around but their relief at bad light, followed by rain, is only cosmetic. A great day for England.