Andrew Strauss admitted to regrets and frustrations after England were outplayed in all departments in their innings defeat against South Africa at the Kia Oval.
Ian Bell (55) did his best to try to salvage an unlikely draw on the final day. But Dale Steyn (5-56) ensured the gulf in performance was duly converted into a trouncing, with a session to spare in the first Investec Test.
There is precious little room for manoeuvre now, in just two remaining matches – starting at Headingley next week – if England are to overturn the scoreline.
Had Bell and others managed a great escape, it would have been a laudable effort but a travesty in many ways too after South Africa had piled up a mammoth 637-2 declared thanks to Hashim Amla’s historic triple-century and hundreds too from captain Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis.
Strauss did not seek to argue with the overwhelming evidence of the scorebook, or cite excuses for his world No 1 team’s shortfall with bat and ball.
“I don’t sit there ranking defeats, but we were outplayed ...” he said.
“There are a number of areas where we are frustrated.
“There are regrets there, but we will learn the lessons and come back strong next week.”
England faltered most obviously when they failed to build on a first-day stumps total of 267-3 – and then when their much-vaunted bowling attack barely managed to find any movement off the pitch or in the air with three successive new balls.
Strauss also rued the loss of four wickets on the penultimate evening, after Smith’s teatime declaration.
“I suppose South Africa had a bit of a psychological advantage, with us having been in the field for a period of time,” he said.
“But we did not react well enough to that, and that leaves a sour taste in the mouth.”
As for managing just two wickets in 189 overs themselves, he added: “The wicket was at its most placid. We could not get the ball swinging either way.
“It was always going to be hard work for us. South Africa never gave us an end to bowl at.
“When we did get someone in, Kallis got a hundred of his own.”
England began the final day hoping to invoke the spirit of previous successful rearguards, against South Africa and Australia, in the Strauss era. They appeared to have a chance when Bell and Matt Prior were sharing a stand of 86 for the sixth wicket – but the illusion did not last long.
“Most of my regrets are that we did not come out with a draw. We should have done that,” said the captain.
“Losing four wickets last night was a body blow for us ... with more wickets in hand we could have batted out the day.”
He knows time is short now, for England to regroup and at least retain their No 1 status by earning a series draw. But he is confident they can.
“I am sure there are lessons for us to learn, coming out of this Test match,” he said.
“There have to be, and it is increasingly important in a three-Test series not to repeat those mistakes in the next game.
“I still think we will come back into the series. We have often played our best when we have come off a defeat, and this is a good challenge for us.
“We have two games and we have to win them both to win the series.
“I have huge confidence in our players to do that. But we need to use the time this week wisely to put the game to bed and learn lessons from it, recharge batteries and make sure we are ready to go next week.”
Few, if any, England players emerged from the Oval debacle with their standing intact – let alone enhanced.
All have an appointment with coach Andy Flower, to appraise their performance before Leeds.
“Andy will chat to the players individually,” said Strauss.
“Everyone needs to go away and think about what they did in this Test match and steel themselves as much as possible to come and play some good, hard cricket next week – because that is what it will take next week.”
South Africa coach Gary Kirsten does not need to debrief his tourists.
Sitting next to world-class all-rounder Kallis, he said of their victory: “It’s very special.
“Those kind of things don’t happen very often.
“But we’ve got some real class in our batting line-up, guys with a lot of experience and guys – one sitting next to me – who enjoy batting a lot.”
A delighted Smith had to leave the ground quickly for his flight to Cape Town to attend the birth of his first child, but plans to be back at the start of next week.
In his absence, Kallis was on hand to explain South Africa’s likely preparations between Tests – which will include a two-day tour match in Worcester.
“We’ll enjoy the next couple of days,” he said.
“But both sides start nought for nought in the next Test match – and we realise there’s a lot of hard work ahead of us.”
Amla was named man of the match after becoming the first South African to make a Test treble century with his unbeaten 311.
The 29-year-old was understandably delighted with his efforts but was keen to hail the contributions of Smith and Kallis as well as praising the Proteas’ bowling attack.
He said: “I’m obviously very excited and grateful for the opportunity to be able to contribute and get a big score like that, but you can never do it alone and fortunately Graeme and Jacques were with me to guide me along, so it was a lovely experience for myself.”
Scorecard: Page 20.