Moeen Ali’s career-best bowling helped Yorkshire’s Joe Root start his tenure as Test captain with a resounding 211-run victory inside four days as 19 wickets fell in three remarkable sessions at Lord’s.
Root’s Yorkshire club-mate Jonny Bairstow also bailed out England with a defiant half-century, after a collapse of seven wickets for 43 runs, and then kickstarted South Africa’s descent to 119 all out with an athletic leg-side catch as the tourists’ attempt to pull off the ground’s second-highest run chase veered instead onto the fast track to defeat.
Spin then predictably did much of the damage on a decidedly helpful surface, as Moeen (6-53) finished with a 10-wicket match haul and Liam Dawson did his bit too.
It was Root himself, however, who laid the foundations for success on captaincy debut with his first-innings 190 – 103 more than any other batsman managed for either side – as England put behind them the four consecutive defeats in India last winter that ended Alastair Cook’s record-breaking era in charge.
Bairstow, dropped on just seven by Vernon Philander at long-off, stood firm with a 74-ball 50 while England lost four wickets for 10 runs and then three for two in a total of 233 all out, which nonetheless left the tourists with a taxing target of 331.
South Africa opener Heino Kuhn completed his unsuccessful maiden Test with a second single-figure score, caught by Bairstow off James Anderson; then Moeen held a head-high return catch to account for Dean Elgar, and JP Duminy mistimed a pull to give Mark Wood his first Test wicket on his long-awaited return from ankle surgery.
That was from the last delivery before tea, and South Africa’s slide continued apace almost immediately afterwards when Dawson turned one up the slope in his first over to pin Hashim Amla lbw.
Moeen had luck on his side when Quinton de Kock contrived to pull a short one straight down on to his front boot and back on to the base of his stumps, but the off-spinner needed no such quirks to hit the top of off in his next over as Temba Bavuma tried to heave him to leg as well.
There was only the tail left from 67-6, and there would be no stopping Moeen.
Morne Morkel (3-64) had hinted at a lasting fightback when he started England’s collapse by striking twice in successive overs to see off Cook and Yorkshire’s Gary Ballance – and then Keshav Maharaj (4-85) got Root cheaply.
But Bairstow (51) made sure England stayed ahead of the game, notably in a ninth-wicket stand of 45 with Wood.
Cook had laboured long and hard for his half-century, and added just 10 to his overnight 59 before South Africa’s tall fast bowler ended an obdurate, 192-ball and near four-hour stay.
England’s record runscorer poked a drive on the up and was well-caught by a diving Bavuma at cover, and Morkel doubled by finding enough movement off the pitch down the slope from round the wicket to have Ballance edging behind pushing forward.
Root paid for a misjudgment against Maharaj, becoming the left-arm spinner’s first victim when he tried to dab runs into the off-side off the back foot, but instead edged on to his stumps as the ball carried on with the arm.
Ben Stokes joined the collapse, for just a single, and gave himself out lbw, walking straight off without waiting for umpire Paul Reiffel’s raised finger after being hit low in the crease as the pitch began to show increasing signs of variable bounce to go with the sharp turn available to Maharaj.
The by-play which followed, De Kock covering Rabada’s mouth and the bowler himself responding with a shushing finger to his own lips, appeared a good-natured reference to his controversial International Cricket Council ban from next week’s second Test after swearing when he dismissed Stokes here in the first innings.
It would have been 159-6 had Philander held a regulation catch when Bairstow went after Maharaj.
The Yorkshireman counted a bonus four as the ball fell from Philander’s grasp and bounced over the rope, and he added another three boundaries in Maharaj’s next over.
The slow left-armer hit back, though, by bowling Moeen through the gate and Rabada, presumably trying to york Dawson, knocked out middle-stump with a fast, near waist-high full-toss.
Dawson had bagged a pair, and before lunch Stuart Broad followed his first-innings half-century with a golden duck when he was caught at short-leg off Maharaj.
But Wood’s 28 runs were very valuable, before he was bowled trying to pull Rabada, and Bairstow was last out stumped missing a sweep at Maharaj before getting to work with the gloves himself.