It used to be true that if you could make runs regularly on that evil pitch at Headingley you could walk into any Test side in the world.

England used to pick special bowlers for their matches there, men like the medium-pacer Neil Mallender, who understood the vagaries of its surface, how it changed at the suggestion of rain and who seemed to send the ball to two directions at once.

They were probably unfit to bowl on any other Test pitch but destroyers on this strip with the devil incarnate in its roots. Overseas batsmen used to shiver when it was mentioned but home batsmen — like Geoff Boycott, Michael Vaughan and Len Hutton and other gnarled Yorkshiremen — earned their reputation with master classes on how to combat its devious surface.

Sadly it has grown tamer in recent years but, as England counted its failures from the innings and 12-run defeat at the Oval on Monday, its selectors hinted that it might be unchanged for the second Test at Leeds and that one of the old-style witches pitches might suit its seamers.

Jimmy Anderson from Yorkshire’s traditional rival Lancashire, Tim Bresnan, born just 30 miles from Headingley and Stuart Broad, from a cricket family and always destined to play a major part for England are all capable of making best use of the Headingley pitch.

At the Oval they were bruised, beaten and bewildered by Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis whose consummate batting laid the foundation not just for victory but for a place at the top of the world rankings.

So those three will be hoping — perhaps with a hint or two by Twitter or phoning a friend or wishful thinking — that when they arrive at Leeds next week they will see 22 yards of turf unfit for cricket.

England’s defeat remains a mystery. It all centres on the second morning when it began with 267 for three on the board, with Alastair Cook undefeated after his 20th Test century and, despite the loss of Jonathon Trott and Kevin Pietersen likely to reach 600 on a pitch made for batting.

Instead it could only manage 385 and gave South Africa two-and-a-half days to compile a winning score. Graeme Smith made a century in his 100th Test — 91 as captain — Amla batted until he had made the first triple century by a South African and as for Jacques Kallis; well when did he last turn down such an invitation?

Different player

Amla is different. He is sober, disciplined on and off the cricket grounds and so modest he left the British press open-mouthed as he declined to build up his own ego as our cricketers and footballers can be expected to do. Kallis was clearly driven by his affection for his mate Mark Boucher, now an invalid from his eye accident.

By the time South Africa had taken the score to 637 for two, Amla and Kallis had removed defeat from the equation and given England four sessions to survive if it wanted to keep its place at the top of the world rankings.

England never came close to forcing a draw and the place at the top it ensured by its crushing victory against India a year ago was slipping out of its fingers when it crashed to defeat thanks to five wickets to the screaming assassin Dale Steyn.

Hope springs in the England heart because it has remembered the beast of Headingley where umpire Dickie Bird once stopped play because he found himself ankle deep in water from a leaking tap but where drowning is the least of a foreign batsman’s worries.

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