Wwelcome back, then, England’s Test team. We have been waiting for you. On a strangely frictionless third day at Lord’s, England’s cricketers simply ran out of Baz. Or rather, they faced a much stronger opponent in South Africa, with a bowling attack good enough to remove the buzzwords, the marketing loop, the vibes, the manly feelings, to bury the adrenal glands of the early summer. And to do so with a surgical sheen that feels all the more peculiar because it doesn’t really lead anywhere.
South Africa did not look like a team that is about to give up playing Tests with any serious intent in the next four-year cycle. England looked less like the last custodians of the old form, more like a peculiar mix of the underbaked and the transferred.
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 lyricism of decay in watching a 36-year-old Stuart Broad bat for England on this death rattle for a day, in the death of a dying Test in a dying format, against opponents who will be back here again one day, just not one day soon.
Has there been a more entertaining lower-order batsman in England’s Test history? Not many, and none that show up. Broad came to the wicket on 86 for six. There is a kind of ceremonial feeling to his arrival on occasions like these, like sending out the lively trumpeter with his scroll, here to announce that the end is near.
Broad is that rare thing, a cricketer with a batsman’s eye and a bowler’s heart. It really shouldn’t work. It’s eight years since that horrific blow under the grill against India that left him genuinely terrified of fast bowling, a condition that makes every Test innings since an act of courage.
Part of the joy of watching him is the look of dignified offense as he takes guard. He’s too tall for this. He exudes impermanence. But he can still play shots that are dreamy, balletic, physically creative, and beyond the reach of many first-class players. Here he was off like a shot, backing away from Anrich Nortje, whirling and swiping wildly to his leg, like a man trapped inside a revolving door desperately trying to free his umbrella from its belt hooks.
Later in the over, he hooked Nortje into the stands for six. The ball was thrown at 91 mph. Broad looked away, jerked, clicked his ankles together, swung low to high and hit it into Hertfordshire. The next ball was scoop driven from somewhere near square leg. Nortje bounced him, but you can’t really bounce Bred: he’s not there, he’s the scarlet pimpernel, twirling his cloak and examining the grass beyond the mowed strip.
Wide against fast-paced bowling: this is the fourth format the ECB should have tried to patent and sell to the world. A little later, Marco Jansen got one up by the chin but was edged for another four, while Broad clutched his bat to his neck, like a man playing a violin. The 50 partnership with Ben Stokes came up in 40 balls and the Lord’s crowd erupted in warm, happy applause, soaking up the last sweetness of the day.
And really, enjoy this thing while you can. The future tour program has already been polished and sighed over. Most importantly, England, Australia and India play each other every five months. While between the current summer and December 2026, England and South Africa will only play 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 single one of their bowlers was better, and indeed consistently faster, than all of England’s bowlers. Lungi Ngidi takes his wickets on 20. Kagiso Rabada is a true hall-of-famer. And Rabada was smart enough to bowl a slower ball to Broad in his first over, pulling a tossed drive to mid-off.
Broad departed with 35 off 29 balls, England’s second highest run scorer in this Test. But then he also has more test runs in his career than Cyril Washbrook and is about to pass Patsy Hendren. Not to mention fifth on England’s all-time 6-hits list, a list that reads Stokes, Flintoff, Pietersen, Botham, Broad.
Jansen did it for Matthew Potts with a lovely in-ducker that met no opposition, no recognizable batting, and then did it for Jimmy Anderson with the same ball to end the Test. The immediate feeling was mild embarrassment that England had been quite so fragile, dismissed twice in 82.4 overs.
And they are a strange kind of team. Six players are over 30. Worse, these are also the good ones. England’s fastest 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 those who average 25, 26 and 29. England are good enough to test South Africa’s top order. But this felt like a strange kind of ending, brightened only by the late flowering of Broad.