Led by Daryll Cullinan and Jacques Kallis, who put on 81 in 134 minutes, the South Africans fought hard to avert the follow-on on a pitch still giving help to seam, swing and spin. Both profited from their share of luck, just as the England batsmen had on the opening day, and from some lapses in the field, but their policy of counter-attack contrasted with the war of attrition waged by the England middle order on the second day.
Having removed Gerry Liebenberg and the dangerous Gary Kirsten before tea, Cork whipped out Kallis and Hansie Cronje in quick succession afterwards in a spell of 10 overs, 2 for 25. Had Fraser enjoyed a touch more luck, the damage could have been even greater. But Cullinan, badly missed by Alec Stewart off Robert Croft when he was 19, mixed studied aggression with desperate defence before succumbing to the low bounce induced by Angus Fraser minutes before the close, his concentration shattered by a brief stoppage for bad light. That left Jonty Rhodes with the responsibility of guiding South Africa to safety today, on 192 for five and still 71 runs short of the follow- on.
Whichever way this Test goes - and a draw is still favourite - England can take heart from their performance here. Criticism of England's grinding accumulation on the second day, however mild, must have produced a shake of the head in the England dressing-room. Damned if you do; damned if you don't. In retrospect, the saving of Gough's right hand from more punishment by Allan Donald was more significant than adding a few more runs on a gloomy evening; on the spur of the moment, with a set target in the captain's mind, the danger was not so obvious.
Yesterday, after drizzle had delayed the start until 1.20pm, the pitch continued to test technique and temperament; tunnel vision and the patience of Job - distinctly Athertonian qualities - became the prime requisites for survival. The trick is to forget the last ball and concentrate on the next. Experience of English conditions on the county circuit with Middlesex proved invaluable for Kallis, who survived a torrid mid-afternoon spell from Fraser to record a worthy half-century, and Cullinan, once of Derbyshire, also demonstrated that he learned valuable lessons during his employment.
Once Kirsten had followed Liebenberg to the pavilion, smartly caught by Mark Butcher diving high and to his left at third slip, Kallis and Cullinan dug in to repair the damage, though not without alarm. In the space of two overs, Stewart missed a simple stumping chance as Croft lured Cullinan forward and Kallis endured a spiteful over from Fraser, who added an extra 5mph to his usual middle-lane trundle in honour of his Middlesex team-mate.
Finding pronounced bounce and movement, Fraser whipped a leg-cutter past Kallis's forward prod, the "catch" to slip coming off the batsman's hip; had a sharp chance to Ben Spendlove, the substitute fielder standing in for the stricken Gough, at short leg dropped; and produced a beauty, which lifted and seamed. No wonder Kallis headed swiftly for the sanctuary of the tea interval. Fraser began to feel much the same sense of injustice as Shaun Pollock had on the opening day.
Cork announced his return to Test cricket with a bouncer, a typically defiant response to 16 months in the wilderness. That one out of his system, he settled into a good rhythm in his first spell and again when switched to the Pavilion End. Like Ian Botham, the out-swinger is Cork's chief weapon and, in the initial overcast conditions, it began to work as efficiently as he had advertised, but it was the in-swinger which accounted for Liebenberg on his Test debut in England. The South African opener propped a fraction too far forward and an inside edge on to his pad lobbed up invitingly to Spendlove, Cork's young county colleague, at short leg. The Derbyshire celebrations were unconfined, Cork marking the wicket with a Laker-like hitch of the trousers.
The volatility of the cricket contrasted with the timetable of a miserable morning, the situation not helped by the PR department of the England Cricket Board. No announcement until 50 minutes after the due start of play, not a soul on the playing area for much of the time and a desultory inspection of the pitch by the three umpires, hands in pockets, long after the drizzle had stopped. Prison chain gangs have looked more enthusiastic. Live transmission of the rugby from Australia on the video screen, 25 minutes after kick-off, did little to brighten spirits.
The BBC brought news of the early lunch a full five minutes before the punters were told - and they had paid pounds 20 to watch their cricket live. Surely it is not beyond the wit of the ECB or Warwickshire CCC to devise some mild diversion to the time-honoured summer pastime of watching the grass grow.
Scoreboard from Edgbaston
Third day; South Africa won toss
ENGLAND - First Innings
M A Butcher c Kallis b Adams 77
272 min, 214 balls, 7 fours; sweep to backward square leg
M A Atherton c Boucher b Donald 103
366 min, 279 balls, 12 fours; edged wide ball to wicketkeeper
*A J Stewart c Cullinan b Klusener 49
187 min, 128 balls, 5 fours; drove wide ball to only slip
N Hussain lbw b Adams 35
98 min, 82 balls, 5 fours; beaten playing back by low bounce
G P Thorpe b Pollock 10
39 min, 30 balls, 1 four; yorked by late inswing
M R Ramprakash b Donald 49
194 min, 151 balls, 4 fours; new ball cut away off pitch
M A Ealham b Adams 5
56 min, 39 balls; full-length ball drifted in
D G Cork c Pollock b Donald 6
128 min, 109 balls, 5 fours; slice to third man
R D B Croft c Boucher b Donald 19
33 min, 21 balls, 2 fours; driving expansively to wicketkeeper
D Gough not out 16
34 min, 15 balls, 2 fours
A R C Fraser c Cronje b Pollock 9
27 min, 21 balls, 1 four; stepped back and drove to mid-off
Extras (b18 lb26 w8 nb2) 54
Total (722 min, 181 overs) 462
Fall: 1-179 (Butcher) 2-249 (Atherton) 3-309 (Stewart) 4-309 (Hussain) 5-329 (Thorpe) 6-356 (Ealham) 7-411 (Ramprakash) 8-430 (Cork) 9-437 (Croft) 10-462 (Fraser).
Bowling: Donald 35-9-95-4 (w2) (6-2-13-0, 2-0-5-0, 5-0-19-0, 3-1-6-0, 8-5-12-1, 5-1-11-0, 6-0-29-3); Pollock 42-12-92-2 (nb2, w1) (7-4-7-0, 7-1-13-0, 3-0-3-0, 4-3-5-0, 6-1-25-0, 6-2-7-1, 3-0-11-0, 6-1-21-1); Klusener 31-7-74-1 (8-3-26-0, 5-1-9-0, 3-0-10-0, 9-1-18-1, 6-2-1 1-0); Cronje 11- 3-28-0 (w1) (4-2-4-0, 3-1-6-0, 4-0-18-0); Adams 42-10-83-3 (8-0-19-0, 10-2-28-1, 17-6-26-2, 7-2-10-0); Kallis 20-7-46-0 (w1) (7-2-16-0, 5-2- 16-0, 3-1-7-0, 5-2-7-0).
SOUTH AFRICA - First Innings
G Kirsten c Butcher b Cork 12
80 min, 55 balls, 1 four; flashed high to third slip
G F J Liebenberg c sub (B L Spendlove) b Cork 3
22 min, 15 balls; inside edge off pad to short leg
J H Kallis c Stewart b Cork 61
192 min, 131 balls, 3 fours; edged away swinger behind
D J Cullinan b Fraser 78
221 min, 193 balls, 8 fours; inside edge played on
*W J Cronje c sub (Spendlove) b Cork 1
8 min, 6 balls; prodded to short leg
J N Rhodes not out 36
82 min, 51 balls, 3 fours, 1 six
S M Pollock not out 0
4 min, 2 balls
Extras (nb1) 1
Total (for 5, 307 min, 75.2 overs) 192
Fall: 1-6 (Liebenberg) 2-38 (Kirsten) 3-119 (Kallis) 4-125 (Cronje) 5- 191 (Cullinan).
To bat: M V Boucher, L Klusener, P R Adams, A A Donald.
Bowling: Fraser 21-4-50-1 (nb1) (9-3-16-0, 5-1-12-0, 7-0-22-1); Cork 23-6-52-4 (6-3-12-1, 7-2-15-1, 10-1-25-2); Ealham 12-2-34-0 (8-1-21-0, 4-1-13-0); Croft 19.2-1-56-0 (18-1-50-0, 1.2-0-6-0).
Progress: Third day: Rain delayed start until 1.20pm. 50: 108 min, 25.2 overs. Tea: 88-2 (Kallis 51, Cullinan 22) 41 overs. 100: 181 min, 44.4 overs. 150: 252 min, 63.3 overs. Bad light stopped play 6.42-6.52pm 191- 4 (Cullinan 78, Rhodes 35) 74. Two overs. Bad light stopped play 6.58pm.
Kallis's 50: 143 min, 88 balls, 3 fours. Cullinan's 50: 159 min, 148 balls, 4 fours.
Umpires: D R Shepherd and R B Tiffin.
TV Replay Umpire: J H Hampshire. Match Referee: Javed Burki.