Welcome back, then, the England Test team. We’ve been expecting you. On a weirdly frictionless third day at Lord’s England’s cricketers simply ran out of Baz. Or rather, they met a much stronger opponent in South Africa, with a bowling attack good enough to strip away the buzzwords, the marketing schlock, the vibes power, the man-feelings, to bury the adrenal highs of the early summer. And to do so with a surgical brilliance that feels all the more peculiar because it doesn’t really lead anywhere.
South Africa didn’t look like a team that is about to give up playing Tests with any serious intent in the next four-year cycle. England didn’t look like the last guardians of the old form, more like a peculiar miscellany of the under-baked and the superannuated.
And yet as ever there were notes of fascination, even on a day when England were rattled out in 37 overs to lose by an innings. There was a kind of poetry of decay in watching a 36-year-old Stuart Broad bat for England on this death rattle of a day, in the dead heat of a dying Test in a dying format, against opponents who will be back here again one day, just not any day soon.
Has there been a more entertaining lower-order batsman in England’s Test history? Not many, and none that spring to mind. Broad came to the wicket at 86 for six. There is a kind of ceremonial feel to his arrival on occasions such as these, like sending out the liveried trumpeter with his scroll, here to announce that the end is nigh upon us.
Broad is that rare thing, a cricketer with a batsman’s eye and a bowler’s heart. It really shouldn’t work. It is eight years now since that horrible blow under the grille against India that left him genuinely spooked by fast bowling, a state of affairs that makes every Test innings since an act of courage.
Part of the joy of watching him is the look of dignified affront as he takes guard. He’s too tall for this. He radiates impermanence. But he can still play shots that are dreamy, balletic, physically creative, and beyond the reach of many top-order players. Here he was off like a shot, backing away from Anrich Nortje ,whirling and swiping wildly to leg, like a man trapped inside a revolving door trying desperately to free his umbrella from his belt hooks.
Later in the over he hooked Nortje into the grandstand for six. The ball was bowled at 91mph. Broad looked away, flinched, clicked his ankles together, swung low to high and hit it into Hertfordshire. The next ball was scoop-driven from somewhere close to square leg. Nortje bounced him, but you can’t really bounce Broad: he’s not there, he’s the Scarlet Pimpernel, off whirling his cloak, examining the grass beyond the cut strip.
Broad against high-pace bowling: this is the fourth format the ECB should have tried to patent and sell to the world. A bit later Marco Jansen got one up at his chin but was edged for another four, Broad clutching his bat to his throat, like a man playing the violin. The 50 partnership with Ben Stokes came up off 40 balls and the Lord’s crowd erupted into warm, fond applause, sucking the last sweetness out of the day.
And really, enjoy this thing while you can. The future tours programme has already been pored and sighed over. The main takeaway is that England, Australia and India are playing each other every five months. Whereas between the current summer and December 2026, England and South Africa will play just five ODIs and three T20s. The next Test between these two is four and a half years away, with no date in the diary for a return to Lord’s.
If there is another note of frustration here, it is simply the fact that South Africa have the best Test bowling attack in world cricket. Every one of their bowlers was better, and indeed consistently quicker, than every one of England’s bowlers. Lungi Ngidi takes his wickets at 20. Kagiso Rabada is a genuine hall-of-famer. And Rabada was smart enough to bowl a slower ball to Broad in his first over back, drawing a plinked drive to mid-off.
Broad walked off with 35 off 29 balls, England’s second-highest run-scorer in this Test. But then he also has more career Test runs than Cyril Washbrook and is about to go past Patsy Hendren. Not to mention fifth spot on the all-time England six-hitting roster, a list that reads Stokes, Flintoff, Pietersen, Botham, Broad.
Jansen did for Matthew Potts with a lovely in-ducker that met no resistance, no recognisable batting, then did for Jimmy Anderson with the same ball to wrap up the Test. The immediate feeling was mild embarrassment that England had been quite this brittle, dismissed twice in a rollicking 82.4 overs.
And they are a weird all-sorts kind of team. Six players are over 30. Worse, these are also the good ones. England’s quickest bowler was their oldest bowler, their slowest their youngest.
Things can change very quickly in a series in England. There will be new names at Old Trafford, perhaps even some new top-order players to replace the ones averaging 25, 26 and 29. England are good enough to test South Africa’s top order. But this felt like a strange kind of ending, illuminated only by the late bloom of Broad.