No 1 The crown is slipping and devastating defeat gives Strauss serious problems
23:16 GMT, 23 July 2012
It does not get much worse than this. Never have England lost a Test while taking only two wickets and rarely, at least under Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss, have they looked so utterly outplayed and devoid of ideas and imagination.
Best team in the world Not on this evidence. That hard-earned status is hanging by a thread.
England must beat South Africa at Headingley or Lord’s and avoid defeat in the other Test to remain No 1 and, while that is not beyond them, it will take a mighty improvement on this sorry showing. Whisper it, but England could even slip below Australia if they lose this series 3-0.
Timber: Ravi Bopara is bowled by Dale Steyn on day five of the first Test at the Oval
They will shudder at that. Shudder at how they could crash to the most emphatic and demoralising defeat under the reign of the two men who have done so much to transform England into the well-drilled outfit of the last three years. It is a desperately difficult defeat to explain.
Put simply, England were marmalised. They had their chance when they won an important toss and battled to a position of some authority on day one against a South Africa team who looked under-cooked and almost lethargic amid claims the best bowler in the world, Dale Steyn, was carrying an injury. How misplaced those suggestions seem now, after the tourists won their first Test at The Oval — at the 14th attempt — in style.
Not only did South Africa and Steyn come roaring back to the point where, after treating England with all the disdain they would reserve for Bangladesh, they steamrollered their way to victory by an innings and 12 runs. They also inflicted enough psychological blows to carry a significant advantage into the rest of the series. The need for England to make the most of the week they have before the build-up for the second Investec Test begins is paramount.
This was their fifth defeat in nine Tests since thrashing India to go top of the world last year and life will not get easier when they make the return journey to the subcontinent this winter.
Steam Steyn: The fast bowler (left) celebrates after bowling Bopara for 22 runs on Monday morning
Delaying the inevitable: Ian Bell was the only leading batsman who offered any form of resistance, scoring 55
If they lose this series heavily — and they have now lost their last two Tests against South Africa by an innings — they could easily slip down the ICC ladder as quickly as they climbed to the top of it.
England will let the dust settle before they decide what needs to be done to overturn a defeat in which they could take just those two wickets in 189 overs and capitulated twice with the bat in the home conditions that normally bring out the best in them. There will be no knee-jerk reaction and English cricket is all the better for that.
But if, as they could well do, they throw the same 11 players into battle at Leeds they must have many more plans to dismiss the outstanding South Africa batsmen and insist on much more application from their own. Too many threw their wickets away with the carelessness that Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis simply do not possess.
The damage had been done ahead of the final day but England were still their own worst enemies on Monday. They handed victory to South Africa on a plate when they should have been capable of making the visitors sweat before completing their demolition job.
England’s hopes, with four top batsmen gone, rested with the overnight pair of Ravi Bopara and Ian Bell and next man in Matt Prior, but all three departed to shots they will want to forget, as Kevin Pietersen and Strauss had done on Sunday.
Rare counter-attack: Bell hits out on the way to his half-century at the Oval on Monday
Jacques won't let this one slip: Matt Prior edges a ball from Imran Tahir and is caught by Kallis (left)
South Africa’s attack is good enough as it is without England offering gifts. Bopara, looking to be positive, threw his bat too hard at a wide one from Steyn and crashed the ball into his stumps for his second soft dismissal of the match barely half an hour into the final day. He will survive for Headingley, and rightly, because the days of chopping and changing after one game of a series are gone, but the evidence to suggest Bopara will never be temperamentally suited to the ultimate form of the game is sadly growing.
England were then offered hope. Bell and Prior batted sensibly in adding 86 for the sixth wicket and it was possible to discern a hint of concern among the South Africans. If the pair had got through to tea, England might have dared to dream of another great escape to add to those in Cardiff, Centurion and Cape Town in recent times. As it turned out the whole team could not make it to tea.
England’s last realistic hope departed with Prior. He had looked comfortable before, two overs ahead of the second new ball, aiming the first sweep of the day at an Imran Tahir ball from round the wicket that spat out of the rough. Prior could barely believe it as he top-edged to slip and had to drag himself off with the game all but up.
Winning feeling: Tahir celebrates after dismissing Prior after lunch on day five in south London
When Bell offered one of the safest slippers in the world Kallis further catching practice by holding his bat out to Steyn, Graeme Smith might as well have headed to the airport to fly home for the birth of his first child.
As it was the captain hung around to apply the final rites, with Steyn roaring ‘five’ when he dismissed Graeme Swann for his 18th five-wicket haul in Test cricket. If Steyn is unfit then woe betide England when he has recovered.
It will take a lot for England to recover from this. Initially they must decide whether the pain that Swann still feels in his elbow was in any way responsible for his 52 wicketless overs here and whether Stuart Broad was simply off-colour or suffering an injury of his own.
Then they can decide whether Steven Finn and, possibly, Graham Onions come into the equation but they will not lose faith with the men who took them to the top. They will just demand significant improvement. It is imperative for England that it comes quickly.