They might have briefly stumbled getting out of the starting blocks, but, like Usain Bolt, England came roaring back down the home straight to thrash South Africa inside four days at Lord’s with a thumping win that got the Joe Root era up and running.
If the old cliche is true about the best captains being made by having a great all-rounder in their side, then things look very bright for Root, who, in Ben Stokes and man-of-the-match Moeen Ali, is fortunate enough to have two.
For all the credit that England deserve for playing well, it has to be said that South Africa were poor. Shorn of one of their best batsmen and skipper, Faf du Plessis, the Proteas did not have a game to write home about and deservedly go into next week’s Test at Trent Bridge one down in the series.
Things could have been so different though for the tourists who failed to capitalise when they had England at 49/3, letting the home side off the hook with a hatful of dropped catches — with Root being the main beneficiary and getting reprieved three times, most crucially when on only five runs, before going on to make a match-defining 190.
After a longer wait than usual, the first Test of the summer did not disappoint, with four glorious days of sunshine and the most spin-friendly pitch at Lord’s in recent memory combining to produce a match that ensured England’s 80th Test captain had the best possible start.
England have Root to thank for ensuring that in the end their victory was so resounding. Their new skipper narrowly missed out on a double hundred, but along with Stokes, Ali and rather pleasingly Stuart Broad — who scored his first half century since 2013 — eventually putting South Africa’s attack to the sword, rescuing their poor start to end on 458 all out.
It would prove to be easily the highest total of the match, largely thanks to the bowling of Ali, whose 4/59 in South Africa’s first innings, including the crucial wickets of Hashim Amla and Dean Elgar ensured England took a 97-run lead into their second innings.
Batting got significantly harder as the game wore on, and while Keaton Jennings, Alastair Cook and Gary Ballance’s attritional batting in England’s second innings will not go down in the annals as one of the most thrilling passages of play, the 142 runs they put on in just over 60 overs would prove to be crucial.
Once all of their top three had been dismissed, England lost their remaining seven wickets for 91 runs, a hideous collapse that in other circumstances might have cost them the game.
South Africa though never looked like chasing down the 331 runs they were ultimately set, as Ali produced another masterclass with the ball, taking a career-best 6/53 to skittle South Africa for 119.
It was a performance from England’s premier spinner to silence the doubters, he ended the match with figures of 10/112 as well as contributing a very handy 87 with the bat. While England’s top order once again looked a little brittle, with a batsman of Moeen’s class at number eight, they continue to have excellent strength in depth that can bail them out of many a sticky situation — although it would undoubtedly be a bonus for their new captain if they didn’t have to rely on it quite so often.
South Africa then go to Trent Bridge in slight disarray, with star fast bowler Kagiso Rabada suspended for an accumulation of demerit points following his abusive send-off to Stokes, and with serious questions about a number of men in their batting line-up.
They will however at least be bolstered by the return of Du Plessis, but they will need to take some serious inspiration from the return of their Test skipper or they could find this series getting even worse very quickly.