They came, they swore and they were conquered.
After almost four gruelling months on the road, South Africa will probably simply be relieved to be finally heading home.
In the end, just as it was at Lord’s and The Oval, things were comfortable for England at Old Trafford, with victory wrapped up inside four days by 177 runs. The tourists never came near the target of 380 they were set.
For the fourth Test in succession, first innings runs proved to be the deciding factor, as once again England’s lower order made up for the sins of the top to steer the home side to 362 all out.
After Moeen Ali at Lord’s and Ben Stokes at The Oval, this time it was the turn of Jonny Bairstow, who batted quite brilliantly with the tail — including adding 50 for the final wicket — only to fall one agonising run short of a fourth Test century.
It capped a decent series for England’s wicketkeeper who showed no adverse reaction to being shunted back down the order after the first Test, unsurprisingly given his success there over the last few years, to finish the second-highest run-scorer in the series with 330 at an average of 41.25.
Bairstow played a superb knock, capitalising on some negative captaincy from Faf Du Plessis to put the game almost certainly beyond South Africa’s reach before lunch on Day Two.
Ali went on to play a similarly destructive hand in England’s second dig to snuff out the Proteas’ slightest glimmer of a comeback after England’s top order had failed once again.
With Stokes, Bairstow and Ali at six, seven and eight, England can quite convincingly lay claim to having the strongest lower order in Test cricket at moment, which is fortunate for them because as ever their top order remains a problem.
Keaton Jennings looks set to be the latest man to be ditched as Alastair Cook’s opening partner, after making just 127 runs at an average of 15.87 — Trevor Bayliss talks about wanting to give players ‘one game too many rather than one too few’ before wielding the selectorial axe, but the writing has been on the wall for Jennings for much of this series, the left-hander never looking in good form and perhaps it would have been kinder for England to have dispensed with him earlier on.
England’s number three position also remains a worry, although Tom Westley has shown glimpses of promise and certainly has not done badly enough to be dispensed with after only two Tests.
It is however a little harder to make the case for Dawid Malan to remain at number five. He was a curious selection in the first place, not having either made runs for fun in Championship cricket or been a mainstay of any of England’s sides in other formats, and a return of 35 runs across four innings — only one more than Mark Wood managed from the same number — has done little to suggest he should remain in the side.
With Alex Hales, a proven star for England in white ball cricket, in sensational form, and essentially a better version of the type of player that Malan is, the selectors should look to bring him back into the fold for the upcoming series against the West Indies.
For South Africa this has been a fairly miserable tour, beaten in both the ODI and T20 series and dumped out of the Champions Trophy before the knockout stages had even begun, they have now gone down 3-1 in the Test series, comprehensively outplayed everywhere except Trent Bridge.
Injury, illness, and other circumstances largely out of their control have played their part, but there is no hiding from the fact that this has not been a trip to England that they will look back on with much fondness.
South Africa’s essential weakness was with the bat in hand, registering only a single century and with only three men making more than 200 runs in the series – a poor return even in largely bowler friendly conditions.
Temba Bavuma has looked like one bright spot with the bat, although even he did not really cash in at any point when well set, ultimately finishing with only a highest score of 59 and an average of 32.12, which is not really a decent representation of how good he looked at times — if he can learn to capitalise on his starts then he will surely be a fine player.
At the other end of the scale, Heino Kuhn had a miserable four games at the top of the order, averaging 14.12 with a top score of 34 from eight innings, numbers more befitting one of the various opening options England have tried in recent years.
With the ball in hand South Africa have been a different beast altogether and England were certainly fortunate that Vernon Philander was only sporadically available to the Proteas — even under a near-constant fitness cloud, when the big man actually managed to trundle in, he looked lethal.
Ultimately South Africa’s man of the series was Morne Morkel who finished with 19 wickets but could have had so many more. At times this was self inflicted, no bowler has now taken more wickets from no balls in Test cricket than Morkel. However once he sorted out his problem with overstepping, his luck was no more forthcoming, and he finished the series having produced some incredible if largely unrewarded spells of bowling, ultimately inducing a career-high 90 plays and misses from English batsmen in the series.
While Keshav Maharaj was a positive for South Africa, bowling with excellent control, Kagiso Rabada was a little disappointing — not hitting the heights he has produced in the past and missing one match through suspension after giving Stokes a sweary send-off at Lord’s — in the end South Africa lost every match he played in, although this was certainly coincidental.
In the end Moeen Ali was fittingly named man of the series, his 200+ runs and 25 wickets a first for any man in a four Test series, as he Stokes and Bairstow, along with some handy contributions with the bat from Joe Root — who ensured his maiden series as captain was a successful one – proved too much for South Africa.
James Anderson also enjoyed a decent series, not only having an end of the ground officially named after him at Old Trafford, but also picking up 20 wickets to prove there’s still life in the old dog yet.
Now though England’s focus will turn to the upcoming three-Test series with the West Indies and filling the cracks in their leaky top order — they have the makings of an excellent Test side, but will need to find some steadier foundations to build on if they are to avoid everything crumbling to rubble in the long, hard Ashes winter ahead.