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Cricket news - Quicker than South Africa thought, later than England wanted

Keshav Maharaj scored 71 and was the last man out for South Africa.

Keshav Maharaj scored 71 and was the last man out for South Africa.

South Africa's undoing began even before the Barmy Army were able to wearily warble all the way through "Jerusalem", which they do immediately after the first ball of every day's play. Vernon Philander interrupted Monday's rendition at St George's Park by blipping the third delivery of the morning, bowled by Stuart Broad, towards the irrepressible Ollie Pope, who bolted from silly mid-on and belly-flopped to take a fine catch. That sent a cheer through England's supporters loud enough to drown out the Army creaking through, "And was Jerusalem builded here, Among these dark Satanic mills?" But the choir were soon back on their bike, and when they reached the screeching bit at the very top of the hill - "In England's green and pleasant land!" - a beautiful thing happened.

England's players, still in their happy huddle at the Duckpond End of the pitch, turned towards their fans and, with raised hands, applauded them. The comparative smattering of South Africans in the ground could only look on in silent admiration and sadness. Oh to be an England supporter now that victory is here. Almost always the flow of appreciation in cricket is a one-way street in the other direction: towards the players. To see it reversed reminded all present that, without the fans, there can be no cricket. South Africa haven't needed to relearn that lesson these past three weeks. They know their supporters are beyond disappointed with them. They are angry, and they are demanding improvement. Quite how will that be achieved considering the series now rushes to an indecently hasty conclusion in Johannesburg, where the fourth Test starts on Friday?

The Wanderers is a casino of a cricket ground where gamblers are rewarded as often as they are punished. It's a wonderful place at which to win but a soul-destroying place at which to lose. And the last place you want to be when so much is on the line and you can feel your grip slipping. South Africa can shuffle the deckchairs and even bring in new furniture, but the Titanic is still heading for the iceberg.

But first, distraction. Keshav Maharaj and Dane Paterson shared 99 for the last wicket, South Africa's biggest stand of the match and the highest for the 10th in any Test at this storied ground. The partnership hurried past 50 in Joe Root's 29th over, when Maharaj clubbed the first three deliveries for four and the next two for six, and didn't know much about the sixth. Neither did Jos Buttler, and the ball squirted away for four byes to equal the world record for the most runs conceded in a Test over. Finally, someone had worked out that Root, who had figures of 4/20 after bowling 13.4 overs, was a club class pie tosser. Maharaj was a man unleashed from the chore of bowling 58 overs for an utterly underwhelming 5/180, apparently unable not to middle everything he threw his bat at. And he threw it plenty, most lustily at a delivery from Sam Curran that left a metaphoric trail of smoke as it screamed, flat and furious, over the square leg fence.

The match should have ended seven deliveries before it did, but the edge Curran gleaned from Paterson went unacknowledged by the umpires. Curran exacted his revenge with a direct hit from mid-on, and that was that. For a while there, two South Africans shrugged off the shackles and, instead of trying to fight a war, played a game. Of course, by then, England had won that game. But, before the bubble burst, it was good to see signs of life from two of the 11 dead men walking. See, cricket-minded South Africans? Who said this couldn't be fun, regardless?

But, in the pressbox, reality had already clinked soberly. During the first drinks interval, at 11am, a man arrived to restock the fridge. With beer. He knew this match was not long for the living. Just as he knew that reporters who would soon have a wedding - for the English - or a funeral - for the South Africans - to write about could do with a splash of bottled celebration or commiseration.

Happily, by the time the Barmy Army were toasting their team's triumph, the beer was cold.

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