England are in a mess. It may be largely of their own making, although South Africa have stirred the pot with immense, hard-nosed gusto. They might have won yesterday, there were times when they thought they would indeed do so.
But they lost, beaten by a better, wiser side, playing more complete cricket. The series has gone the way it was feared. England have been let down by dithering selectors but not half as much as they have let themselves down. Both parties have been guilty of fooling themselves.
When England established a lead of 280 yesterday, they thought that they would win, it was revealed later. Michael Vaughan, their beleaguered captain, said he had assumed they would dismiss South Africa for not much above 200. It isnot Vaughan's solitary piece of delusion lately.
But he was, as ever, intelligent to recognise England's parlous state in the immediate aftermath of a long and salutary day and what it meant to him. "This is a real bitter blow. I think we have got to sit down and reassess," he said. "We're not playing the type of cricket we would like." He could have said that again.
"I think we can learn from the way South Africa play. A lot of us are not playing to the standards we have set."
The pressure Vaughan is under after a long sequence of low scores and misjudgements at the crease is obvious. But he was giving nothing away about the captaincy. It did not sound as he was giving the captaincy away either.
"We've got to let the dust settle," he said. There will not be much time for that to happen. The dust will still be very much up in the air by the time the England team for the Fourth Test is announced this morning. "I have got no doubts about my captaincy but I'm not scoring runs. If you don't score runs it doesn't matter what position you bat."
Vaughan has never previouslylost two successive Tests as captain – he used to win them regularly – and for his restored talisman Andrew Flintoff, thedefeat yesterday was his eighth consecutively in Tests.
There will have to be some blood on the selectors' carpet this morning otherwise the knives will be out for them. They have taken the policy of continuity to a new level and in doing so have failed to spot the crack appearing. They have given so many players reprieves and last chances that the team have been unable to evolve as all teams must. They have been swayed by victories against the likes of West Indies and New Zealand and not taken enough account of defeats by India, Sri Lanka and now South Africa. Always there was something round the next corner. They should know what it is by now. Collingwood, doughty Collingwood, so nearly the hero of Edgbaston before Graeme Smith strode out, is a case in point.
Collingwood is a cricketer's cricketer. That is to say his colleagues recognise his worth more than the man on the Clapham Omnibus. Or the Mackem on the Gateshead Metro, come to that. But by any rational standards of selection, he should not have been playing in this match. He wasrecalled because a new panel in their first season appeared to get into a bit of a tizz about how to rectify previous errors, and because England were not scoring enough runs (again).
He had done nothing to encourage their faith once they had decided to drop him from the Second Test at Headingley, simply because he had not played another innings. If they had wanted another batsman for this match they should indeed have looked for another batsman.
But Collingwood was saved, partly, perhaps largely, because he is darned good chap in the dressing room. His mate Vaughan had all but said how strange it had seemed without him. Collingwood was all of a dither in the first part of the match. It could have been his first Test, not his 38th. But the real point was that it could have been his last.
He scored four in England's first innings, which was at least four more than he looked capable of doing, and shelled some catchable catches. It looked as it had from the outset, an artless and craven piece of selection from selectors who had either forgotten or simply did not know how to select. They were, not for the first time, confusing their fidelity to the players and their obligation to the team.
And then in came Collingwood on Friday afternoon. No innings could have better embodied the man it was played by. But the defiant century has complicatedissues. By showing faith the selectors are stuck with him and a good few others in the team. They had better uncomplicate a few issues today. Or South Africa will go 3-0 up at The Oval.