With South Africa achieving their highest score at Lord's it was a tough day for England's captain, Alec Stewart. Faced with nasty session against Allan Donald and co at the fag end of a long hot day Stewart found himself marching to the crease at the end of the fourth over following the dismissals of Michael Atherton and the debutant Steve James in the space of three balls. With nine balls of play left, he too found himself back in the pavilion.
Clearly buoyed by the deeds of earlier in the day and with only 13 overs of the day's play remaining, Donald and Shaun Pollock tore in. After a torrid first over James eased himself into Test cricket with a brace of leg-side fours off Pollock. It was to prove misleading and in the bowler's second over, Atherton was out splicing a lifter to gully for a duck.
Moments later, James gloved a short ball from Donald down the leg-side only to see Mark Boucher bring off a superb diving catch. As if in apology Boucher then dropped Stewart, a miss that was to prove relatively inexpensive after Pollock trapped him lbw with one that kept slightly low.
South Africa's powers of recovery are legendary. Since their return to Test cricket in 1992, their middle and late order has continually been called upon to do the emergency plumbing, after the top order has leaked early wickets.
Yesterday, it was Rhodes, who had the tools to staunch the flow, though Cronje too, played his part after the pair added 184 run in 53 overs, a South African record previously set by Johnny Waite and Tony Pithey in Johannesburg during the 1964/65 season.
Building on the vital 95 he scored at Edgbaston, Rhodes is enjoying something of a hot streak. Before his recent spell in the wilderness - he has played in just seven of his country's last 22 Tests - his inconsistency with the bat was tolerated. When he scored 40 it was argued, it was really worth 80, his phenomenal fielding and all-round chirpiness making up the shortfall.
A talented hockey player in his youth, Rhodes suddenly began to bat like one, usually with only occasional success. Suddenly, he found himself surplus to requirements, despite apparently having ownership rights to the area around cover point.
However, a few carefully chosen words from Barry Richards, and some hard work with the national coach, Bob Woolmer, have cured him of the hockey player's hoick that saw his right hand dominate. Now, both hands stay high through the line of the ball, a transformation that has reaped instant, and for his team, important reward.
Determined to put bat to ball at every opportunity - a sure sign that his confidence is high too - Rhodes middled most of his shots and there were 15 boundaries in his 117. Those he didn't were inevitably turned into cheeky singles, a ploy guaranteed to rile most pace bowlers.
With blue skies overhead the sting in the pitch, so apparent on the first day when England's bowlers, save Dominic Cork, squandered an early advantage, was drawn. After the way Rhodes attacked the ball in less auspicious circumstances the previous day it should have at least been a cue for Stewart to defend.
Although England bowled better as a unit than they had done on Thursday, Stewart was slow to make Rhodes and, to a lesser extent, Cronje work hard for their runs.
The squeeze was finally applied after lunch and England broke through. Cronje, having constructed much of his innings around some elegant cover driving, went for another and promptly holed out at extra cover for 81. It was a loose shot but the control Mark Ealham and Dean Headley brought after the break also played its part.
An over later Rhodes was fortunate to survive an lbw shout, Headley seaming the ball back sharply up the slope from the Nursery End. The close call behind him, Headley promptly bounced a short ball off his helmet. Four years ago, a similar blow from Devon Malcolm had floored Rhodes, an epileptic, concussing him in the process.
There were no such after-effects this time and moments later, having pulled Ealham for three, the whole of Lord's rose to applaud what may prove to be the most crucial innings of the series. When it ended, on 117 as it had done at Edgbaston via an inside edge off Angus Fraser, no one was more thankful than his captain.
The breakthrough proved illusory, and the tail once again wagged as 77 runs were added for the last three wickets. With one of those falling to Cork, the Derbyshire captain ended the innings with 6 for 119.
Had his colleagues supported him earlier, England might not be facing such an enormous task.
England won toss
SOUTH AFRICA - First innings
(Overnight: 135 for 4)
*W J Cronje c Ramprakash b Ealham 81
234 min, 169 balls, 11 fours
J N Rhodes c Stewart b Fraser 117
298 min, 200 balls, 14 fours, 1 six
S M Pollock c Hussain b Cork 14
60 min, 51 balls, 1 four
M V Boucher c Stewart b Headley 35
102 min, 71 balls, 5 fours
L Klusener b Headley 34
70 min, 45 balls, 7 fours
A A Donald not out 7
31 min, 18 balls
P R Adams c Stewart b Cork 3
12 min, 8 balls
Extras (b1, lb20, nb6) 27
Total (475 min, 108.1 overs) 360
Fall (cont): 5-230 (Cronje), 6-273 (Pollock), 7-287 (Rhodes), 8-340 (Klusener), 9-353 (Boucher).
Bowling: Fraser 31-8-78-1 (10-3-28-0, 10-3-25-0, 2-0-8-0, 9-2-17-1); Cork 31.1-5-119-6 (nb5) (14-3-53-4, 5-1-12-0, 4-1-12-0, 7-0-41-1, 1.1- 0-1-1); Headley 22-2-69-2 (nb2) (3-0-24-0, 7-1-20-0, 6-0-13-0, 6-1-12- 2); Ealham 15-2-50-1 (3-0-17-0, 9-2-19-1, 3-0-14-0); Croft 9-3-23-0 (5- 1-17-0, 4-2-6-0).
Progress: Second day: 150: 184 min, 41.1 overs. 200: 248 min, 55.3 overs. Lunch: 224-4 (Cronje 77, Rhodes 91) 63 overs. 250: 329 min, 76.1 overs. New ball: taken after 82 overs at 266-5. 300: 392 min, 90 overs. Tea: 302-7 (Boucher 10, Klusener 15) 91 overs. 350: 459 min, 105 overs. Innings closed: 5.19pm.
Cronje 50: 120 min, 83 balls, 7 fours.
Rhodes 50: 103 min, 69 balls, 7 fours, 1 six. 100: 233 min, 166 balls, 13 fours, 1 six.
ENGLAND- First innings
S P James c Boucher b Donald 10
M A Atherton c Kirsten b Pollock 0
N Hussain not out 10
*A J Stewart lbw b Pollock 14
D W Headley not out 10
Extras (lb5, nb1) 6
Total (for 3, 13 overs) 40
Fall: 1-15, 2-15,m 3-40.
To bat: G P Thorpe, M R Ramprakash, M A Ealham, D G Cork, R D B Croft, A R C Fraser.
Umpires: G Sharp and D B Hair (Aus).