Joe Root said he was up for a scrap against South Africa
His team were on the ropes after a serious pummelling at Trent Bridge, the cocksure composure of victory in the first match of the series a distant memory.
A familiar tale of brittle batting and swiftly crumbling confidence saw England concede a huge first innings advantage of 130 runs against the revitalised tourists.
By the close South Africa were 75-1 second time around, a lead of 205 runs. They appear to be cruising to a victory that will make the series 1-1 with two matches to play.
The truth was brutal yesterday. One team scrapped for all they were worth, full of fighting spirit and intelligent intent. England, by contrast, batted as if they were on easy street, trying to score runs at breakneck speed on an overcast day when conditions suited the bowlers.
Was this a touch of complacency following the comfortable win at Lord’s? Was it just rotten tactics?
Root himself must take some of the blame. The new England captain tried to lead from the front with a scintillating knock of 78, batting with majestic class at times.
England fell apart of day two of the Second Test
It also proved his downfall when he tried one attacking shot too many and gave away his wicket – and it was a general approach that proved reckless for his colleagues.
There is another piece of cricketing wisdom – which is that a captain is only as good as his team.
This batting line-up is still well short of the requisite quality.
A crackerjack day of tumbling wickets had actually begun well for England when James Anderson took four quick scalps in half an hour to knock over South Africa’s tail.
They moved on from an overnight 309-6 to 33 all out as Anderson found considerable swing at his favourite ground. the dismissals meant that he and Stuart Broad passed 700 Test wickets as a partnership, the second best fast bowling pair in history after Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh.
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For a few minutes the Trent Bridge crowd roared approval. Why not? It is a formidable achievement to be cherished.
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England headed to Sydney with the 2010-11 Ashes in the bag but a series win was at stake. Hundreds from Alastair Cook, Ian Bell and Matt Prior set up a total of 644 before the seamers forced the tourists to an innings win
The spectators were quickly hushed, though, when England openers Alastair Cook and Keaton Jennings were both gone with only three runs scored. Root came in and counter-attacked with princely assurance, peppering the boundary with fine square cuts and fierce pull shots. He is an outstanding talent.
Sadly, only Jonny Bairstow, who scrambled 45 runs, proved any kind of ally.
England had reached 142-3 when Root perished trying to drive a wide delivery from Mornie Morkel. They rapidly and miserably collapsed to 205 all out, three wickets going down on 199 alone amid the disarray.
The innings lasted barely four hours and 50 overs. You simply don’t win Test matches batting for such a short period.
If anything symbolised England’s woes it was the sight of a deeply frustrated Ben Stokes spending 37 minutes to record a duck.
He was eventually caught behind off left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj but even then had to suffer the indignity of waiting halfway to the pavilion while the umpires checked whether the ball had struck the wicket-keeper’s helmet before being snaffled. It hadn’t.
The dismissal of Liam Dawson, ninth man out when he top-edged a sweep off Maharaj, prompted particular growls as well as groans of dismay from the England fans. His selection as a second spinner, rather than England playing an experienced front-line batsman like Jos Buttler, has proved a foolish luxury.
Could England’s bowlers rescue the cause? Anderson and Broad began beautifully with the new ball, confounding the batsmen with movement off the seam and in the air.
South Africa responded with watchful defiance despite the loss of opener Heino Kuhn, who edged to Root at second slip for eight.
It was serious batting from Dean Elgar and Hashim Amla that illuminated the folly of England’s approach earlier in the day.
Much of the crowd departed long before the end. Legend Geoffrey Boycott declared that England’s batting had been “absolute tripe.” Empty seats told their own story.