Needing to score quickly, the home side managed 170 for 8 in 45 overs, though such was the reckless abandon with which England played that Alec Stewart will surely be saved a potentially tricky decision when England are bowled out sometime today.
England, at least initially, did not allow themselves to become distracted as they have occasionally done in the past. Having lost Mark Butcher for 11 and Nasser Hussain for 0, the latter once again the victim of misfortune - this time to a poor lbw decision - they pressed on, captain Stewart beginning the momentum with a quickfire 28.
When he fell, bowled trying to whip Donald to leg, Atherton and Thorpe raised the tempo further. As a left-hander, Thorpe had more options against Paul Adams and he lofted him over the top, the first time in 46 overs an England player had done so.
Eventually both men sacrificed themselves to the cause, Thorpe playing over a slower ball from Lance Klusener, and Atherton out bowled, trying to cut a straight ball from the same bowler. England then lost their way slightly, losing two wickets for 14 runs, six of those coming from a mighty blow over long-on by Mark Ramprakash off Adams.
Despite the heady scoring rate, England were not helped by some negative bowling from Adams, who almost exclusively fired the ball outside the right-hander's leg-stump. Such tactics - and England are no innocents here having used Phil Tufnell in a similar capacity - have become a blight on the game.
In fact the tactic is so widely used and abused that the International Cricket Council has now passed a standard playing condition that the umpire can call such balls wide. Unfortunately for England and those interested in the cricket yesterday, it will not be in place until 1 October, and Adams' irksome practice went unpunished.
England have for the most part played hard positive cricket at Edgbaston. Had a couple of difficult chances gone their way, such as the diving catch spilled by Ben Spendlove, the substitute, at fine leg, Darren Gough's absence with a broken finger, might have been but a footnote in a glorious triumph. Instead, unless South Africa collapse today, it will probably be seen as the main reason why England came close to shutting the door without quite bolting it.
Mindful of their sloppy cricket on the first day, South Africa's last five batsmen would have begun the day looking no further than the 71 runs required to make England bat again. With the second new ball due almost immediately, and on a pitch beginning to exhibit much of its old capriciousness, the contest should have been tectonic in pace and magnitude.
Instead of proceeding with due caution, the visitors threw it to the wind, though England's bowling, at least initially, did little to persuade them otherwise.
Shaun Pollock has been billed as one of the best all-rounders in world cricket and a couple of fours taken off Angus Fraser did much to bolster the claim. But boldness can have its price and in trying to repeat a hook shot, Pollock top-edged to Robert Croft at fine leg.
Rhodes, meanwhile, continued to keep his running quick and his bat sturdy, bringing up his half-century with a short-armed pull to the mid-wicket boundary off Cork. A committed Christian, Rhodes, following a fallow 14 months where he has played just three Tests, has been reborn as a batsman.
A notorious worker of the ball, Rhodes recently sought the advice of Barry Richards, who told him to be more discerning and play the ball back from where it came from, instead of trying to hit is somewhere squarer. That way, Richards reasoned, you get the bowlers to bowl where you want them to.
So far the advice appears to have worked and Rhodes' only false shot was the top-edged hook off Cork that was dropped by Spendlove when the batsman was on 64. Even when Mark Boucher departed hanging his bat out to Fraser, Rhodes continued to play with confidence.
Joined by the left-handed Klusener, who thumped heartily through the line of the ball, the pair took South Africa past the follow-on, adding 104 runs for the eighth wicket.
Eventually it was the returning Fraser, taking his fourth wicket of the innings who managed to prevent Rhodes from recording his second Test century, with a ball that cut back sharply to take the inside edge. Klusener followed immediately afterwards for 57, slashing at a wide one from Mark Ealham.
Not to be outdone, Cork finished the job off with a brilliant return catch off Donald to give him his fourth five-wicket haul in Test and his first in almost two years. More of the same today will bring him the plaudits he craves and has recently missed.
South Africa won toss
ENGLAND - First Innings 462 (M A Atherton 103, M A Butcher 77; A A Donald 4-95).
SOUTH AFRICA - First Innings
G Kirsten c Butcher b Cork 12
80 min, 55 balls, 1 four
G F J Liebenberg c sub b Cork 3
22 min, 15 balls
J H Kallis c Stewart b Cork 61
192 min, 131 balls, 3 fours
D J Cullinan b Fraser 78
221 min, 193 balls, 8 fours
*W J Cronje c sub b Cork 1
8 min, 6 balls
J N Rhodes c Stewart b Fraser 95
228 min, 156 balls, 8 fours, 1 six
S M Pollock c Croft b Fraser 16
16 min, 18 balls, 3 fours
M V Boucher c Stewart b Fraser 0
18 min, 9 balls
L Klusener c Stewart b Ealham 57
118 min, 90 balls, 11 fours
A A Donald c and b Cork 7
28 min, 17 balls
P R Adams not out 6
24 min, 17 balls, 1 four
Extras (lb5, nb2) 7
Total (482 min, 117.3 overs) 343
Fall: 1-6 (Liebenberg), 2-38 (Kirsten), 3-119 (Kallis), 4-125 (Cronje), 5-191 (Cullinan), 6-211 (Pollock), 7-224 (Boucher), 8-328 (Rhodes), 9- 328 (Klusener).
Bowling: Fraser 34-6-103-4 (nb1) (9-3-16-0, 5-1-12-0, 16-2-58-3, 4-0- 17-1); Cork 32.3-7-93-5 (6-3-12-1, 7-2-15-1, 10-1-25-2, 7-1-22-0, 2-0- 19-0, 0.3-0-0-1); Ealham 23-8-55-1 (8-1-21-0, 4-1-13-0, 11-6-21-1); Croft 27-3-85-0 (18-1-50-0, 3-0-15-0, 6-2-20-0); Butcher 1-0-2-0 (nb1).
Kallis 50: 143 min, 88 balls, 3 fours. Cullinan 50: 159 min, 148 balls, 4 fours. Rhodes 50: 102 min, 62 balls, 4 fours, 1 six. Klusener 50: 104 min, 79 balls, 10 fours.
ENGLAND - Second innings
M A Butcher lbw b Pollock 11
23 min, 21 balls, 1 four
M A Atherton b Klusener 43
170 min, 115 balls, 7 fours
N Hussain lbw b Donald 0
13 min, 5 balls
*A J Stewart b Donald 28
58 min, 34 balls, 3 fours
G P Thorpe b Klusener 43
65 min, 59 balls, 5 fours
M R Ramprakash c Kallis b Adams 11
16 min, 10 balls, 1 four, 1 six
M A Ealham c Pollock b Klusener 7
12 min, 12 balls, 1 four
D G Cork st Boucher b Adams 2
16 min, 7 balls
R D B Croft not out 1
2 min, 8 balls
Extras (b10, lb6, w8) 24
Total (for 8, 196 min, 45.1 overs) 170
Fall: 1-24 (Butcher), 2-31 (Hussain), 3-80 (Stewart), 4-148 (Thorpe), 5-153 (Atherton), 6-167 (Ramprakash), 7-167 (Ealham), 8-170 (Cork).
To bat: A R C Fraser, D Gough.
Bowling: Donald 10-1-48-2 (w1) (6-0-24-1, 2-1-5-1, 2-0-19-0); Pollock 12-2-43-1 (w4) (5-1-10-1, 4-1-22-0, 3-0-11-0); Klusener 11-4-27-3 (5-3- 4-0, 6-1-23-3); Adams 12.1-3-36-2 (one spell).
Progress: Tea 29-1 (Atherton 9, Hussain 0) 7 overs. 50: 58 min, 12.4 overs. 100: 127 min, 29.2 overs. 150: 165 min, 38.3 overs. Bad light stopped play: 7.16pm.
Umpires: D R Shepherd and R B Tiffin.Reuse content