Cape Town – Unavoidable fact: at merciful completion on Monday, this was South Africa’s most painful home Test series performance against England in six post-isolation ones.
There is no disguising that, really.
England have now won three of the last four series here, with one of them split 1-1 in 2009/10, after being beaten in each of the first two (1995/96 and 1999/2000).
Following completion of another entirely comfortable victory by 191 runs in the fourth Test at the Wanderers, Joe Root’s side became the first during the period to prevail by a margin of more than one, securing the spoils 3-1 and every bit deserving that outcome.
All were wide-margin triumphs, following their illness-complicated reverse in the opener at SuperSport Park, and this is the first time since 1913/14 that any England side has won three Tests in a row in South Africa.
This wasn’t even the strongest English side to have come here in recent times; they have had certain positional head-scratchers of their own in recent times, and also played the lion’s share of this series without personnel like James Anderson, Jofra Archer, Rory Burns and their likely first-choice spinner Jack Leach.
Still, it was a reluctant privilege if you were South African – at a time when it simply has to be accepted that true home superstars are currently few - to watch the established gems in the tourists’ ranks like combative Ben Stokes and a whistling Mark Wood strut their stuff on our soil, as well as emerging ones led by the exhilarating 22-year-old stroke-player Ollie Pope.
Unsurprisingly, England players dominated the upper regions of the charts for both premier run-scorers and wicket-takers in the series, although two Proteas did manage to top each category: Quinton de Kock the former (380 at 47.50) and strike find Anrich Nortje the latter (18 at 27.11).
Otherwise, though, and in an indicator of the visitors’ collective mastery, the next three players on the batting list, and only others to go past 300 series runs, were all English (Dom Sibley, Stokes and Root) and four of the five behind Nortje for scalps notched also from the touring ranks.
The Proteas have lost eight of their last nine Test matches, which is harrowingly unfamiliar territory for the national side and shows the full extent to which a rot has set in, leaving head coach Mark Boucher and his lieutenants still with tons of work to do in sifting wheat from chaff and developing players they may have identified for a patient approach.
But did we witness the first, tentative seeds of revival, even as South Africa slipped toward the inevitable on days three and four at the Bullring?
Considering the manner they had been outgunned – again – in all-important first-innings terms, there were at least some credible indicators in the second half of the contest that the Proteas can, eventually, find a way out of the broader rubble.
It is in adversity that newer figures coming pleasingly to the fore can be a gladdening development, and Beuran Hendricks’ tenacious five-wicket haul in the England second innings, followed by Rassie van der Dussen’s Test-best knock of 98 on Monday are among the handful of reasons not to feel these Proteas need to be read last rites.
As Boucher reminded when grilled in the late afternoon sunshine on the Wanderers outfield afterwards by a SuperSport punditry panel, South Africa also have a few missing links – largely through current injury - to filter back into their Test plans for likely enhancement purposes.
Into that category will fall paceman Lungi Ngidi, a candidate for the fairly fluid all-rounder slot like Wiaan Mulder (he is still only 21), and opening batsman Aiden Markram, who former Proteas captain Shaun Pollock perhaps significantly said he was “dead keen” to see back in the mix.
Whether veteran captain Faf du Plessis, who scrapped resolutely enough in his 140-minute vigil for 35 in the acceptable SA second innings despite a wretched run of form, remains on board for the mid-year, two-Test tour of West Indies is not yet absolutely clear.
The Proteas also now face the uncomfortable situation of doing battle regularly for the first time since his assertive debut against Australia in November 2011 without the nagging new-ball skills of bustling seamer and lower-order scrapper Vernon Philander.
While Philander’s strike ability - and pace level, too - was showing tell-tale signs of waning anyway in more recent Test matches, he still retires with a glittering bowling average of 22.32 and his parsimony in run concession (2.63 runs to the over) is another factor that will sorely missed.
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