THE SUSPICION that this would be an intriguing Test series, tough to call and with more twists and turns than you could shake a stick at, has not been allayed by events in the opening two games, England following defeat at Centurion by 107 runs with victory at Cape Town by 189 runs.
Two teams effectively in transition, with new head coaches and players, in some cases, who are new or inexperienced at Test level, has made for an unpredictable first half of a rubber that concludes with fixtures in Port Elizabeth and Johannesburg.
Man for man, England look to have a slight advantage and would be disappointed if they do not at least draw the series from here.
South Africa are dangerous on home soil especially, but a coaching staff that includes Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher is a sharp reminder of the quality that they used to possess on the field as opposed to that now dispensing wisdom behind the scenes.
Ultimately, both sides possess a handful of excellent cricketers and England, surely, the best of those in Ben Stokes, who sealed victory by capturing the last three wickets as South Africa’s brave resistance was ultimately ended with 8.2 overs of the match remaining.
Having begun the day on 126-2 chasing a notional 438, they battled hard – particularly debutant opener Pieter Malan, who made 84 from 288 balls – only for the decisive moment to arrive with 25.3 overs left with the total standing at 237-5.
With Stokes leading from the front with bat, ball and in the field, and with Root calling the shots as the official leader, England have a good double-act in their captain and vice which rubs off well on the other players.Chris Waters
It was then, shortly after reaching a 103-ball half-century, that Quinton de Kock pulled a rank long hop from leg-spinner Joe Denly to Zak Crawley at mid-wicket, a desperate dismissal under the circumstances which opened the door for the touring team.
For all his swashbuckling skills, which are many, de Kock always looks to have a rush of blood/mistake in him and so it proved, another soft dismissal arriving soon after when Stuart Broad had Rassie van der Dussen caught at leg gully by James Anderson having grafted for 17 off 140 deliveries.
There was only one likely outcome from there, particularly with Stokes at his inspirational, whole-hearted best, in a fixture that was a splendid advert for five-day cricket, which kicked back opportunely amid talk of Tests being reduced to four-day affairs.
Stokes was named man-of-the-match after scoring 47 and 72 and taking six catches to go with his three wickets, but England’s victory was founded on a maiden Test hundred from Dominic Sibley.
His unbeaten 133 in the second innings was a triumph of concentration and application and gave Stokes the platform to press the acclerator towards a positive declaration which, as it turned out, was beautifully timed by Joe Root, who had a good game as captain.
With Stokes leading from the front with bat, ball and in the field, and with Root calling the shots as the official leader, England have a good double-act in their captain and vice which rubs off well on the other players.
There is a long way to go before England can be considered an outstanding and consistent Test match side, but results like this are important stepping stones for the players and also for new coach Chris Silverwood, who is off the mark now with a Test match victory.
There were a couple of dark clouds amid the silver linings.
The day started with the unfortunate news that Rory Burns, the opening batsman who damaged ankle ligaments playing football in the warm-ups before the match, could be out for up to four months, ruling him out of the forthcoming trip to Sri Lanka.
In addition, Anderson has a side strain and must be a doubt for Port Elizabeth, where England will hope to have Jofra Archer available again after injury and, perhaps, Mark Wood also.
Sam Curran would appear the most vulnerable if Anderson and Archer are fit, but Dom Bess –briefly of Yorkshire last year – has done enough to keep his place as spinner, having offered Root plenty of control if perhaps not the penetration of a truly world-class operator.
Bess is a young man of 22, however, making his way and making it well, and, like Curran, he has something about him – a bit of spunk with bat and ball; both are feisty competitors who never give up.
South Africa clearly have their issues, particularly with the bat, but England can do no more than beat the opposition in front of them, which they palpably failed to do in the opening Test.
This was a much better effort all round, led by the likes of Sibley and Stokes, and auguring well for the challenges ahead.