In an exciting morning session that yielded four wickets, England took further steps towards their rehabilitation, but it was Kirsten - at 39, the second oldest man to score his maiden Test century, beaten only by 89 days by Harry Makepeace in 1921 - who ensured that their recovery was not total. For Kirsten, it was an emotional day. 'I've had a new lease of life,' he said afterwards. 'Five years ago, I would never have dreamt of this, but after we were allowed back into cricket and I saw England on the agenda, it was just a great incentive for me to keep going.'
Whatever Michael Atherton used to exhort his troops after the catastrophe of Lord's, it is closer to dynamite than topsoil, and it clearly works. Having concentrated both minds and efforts in this match, England's response has been an overwhelming affirmation that their skipper was right to stay.
Yesterday's full house needed to be in fine voice early on, as Phillip DeFreitas cut a decisive hole in the early order with two wickets in as many balls in the opening over.
Running down the hill from the Kirkstall Lane end he had barely had time to get loose when Gary Kirsten, again exercising his trusty lunge, obligingly steered the third ball of the day to the ever-ready Steven Rhodes. If this was the perfect way to start to the day, Hansie Cronje's dismissal the very next ball, playing across a angled delivery that found a yawning gate to hit off-stump, brought on a touch of euphoria. Somehow, Headingley managed to hush itself for the hat-trick ball, but the delivery was too wide to draw Kepler Wessels into the shot.
Such starts can send the bowlers into a feeding frenzy that sees them impatient to get at the batsmen. Normally, this is the kind of thing that a captain wants from his bowlers, but Headingley is the kind of pitch that has an optimum pace at which it gives up its secrets, and a nagging patience is often a virtue here. Darren Gough, who had made the early breakthrough on Friday night, again bowled with great heart and pace, but he was generally too short and often too wide, and he found that most South Africans are good cutters, as Dave Richardson ably demonstrated.
With Richardson scoring freely, Wessels was content to play his favourite role as a frustrator, waiting patiently for anything that strayed off course. Given a life by Atherton after the England captain put him down at third slip, he also saw Richardson survive a run-out that went to TV replay.
Just as the partnership of 60 was denting England's ambitions of making South Africa follow on, Angus Fraser, who had bowled without zip from the Football Stand end, changed ends and scuttled one under the unlucky Richardson's bat.
Wessels followed soon afterwards, caught by John Crawley at short leg, Fraser's round-the-wicket approach again cramping the visitors' captain in much the same way as Salisbury had done at Lord's. At lunch, South Africa were listing at 122 for five, but with much of their top order gone, the situation was one custom-made for Jonty Rhodes and the senior citizen, Kirsten.
Kirsten was effective with his deft touches and sweeps and he used his feet well to Phil Tufnell, twice driving the spinner for four. With the partnership rapidly approaching the hundred mark, Gough was recalled for his first bowl from the Kirkstall Lane and promptly dismissed Rhodes with one that cut back at the right-hander to take the inside edge. Rhodes clearly felt wronged, for he immediately rubbed his elbow. The TV replay appeared to bear him out.
After tea, England's bowling lacked the direction to press home their early advantage. Atherton tried to make something happen by rotating his bowlers, but none looked capable of breaking through once the ball had got soft. With two right-handers at the crease, Tufnell could not exploit the rough and although he bowled tidily, and the odd ball turned, Headingley has rarely been receptive to spin.
Once Kirsten had settled, he played quite beautifully, taking heavy toll on the waywardness now afflicting all the bowlers with an array of crisp pulls and drives that made a mockery of the well-spread field. With the new ball taken, England just needed one bowler to take control. Instead, once the follow-on had been saved, Brian McMillan, sensing a job well done, hoisted DeFreitas for six to post the hundred partnership.
A further six off Tufnell took him to a well deserved fifty and when Kirsten notched up his first Test century, England's day looked as if it had been blighted. However, in the dying moments of the session, DeFreitas suddenly got one to bounce from a length, and Kirsten could do no more than to pop the ball to gully. South Africa have rallied well, but England remain, with a 159-run cushion, firmly in the driving seat.
----------------------------------------------------------------- Headingley scoreboard ----------------------------------------------------------------- (Third day: England won toss) ENGLAND - First Innings 477 for 9 dec (M A Atherton 99, A J Stewart 89, G P Thorpe 72, S J Rhodes 65no). SOUTH AFRICA - First Innings G Kirsten c Rhodes b DeFreitas. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7 (Edged slanting delivery to keeper. 38 min, 21 balls) D J Richardson b Fraser. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 48 (Missed straight shooter. 100 min, 73 balls, 7 fours) W J Cronje b DeFreitas. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0 (Beaten through the gate. 1 min, 1 ball) * K C Wessels c Crawley b Fraser. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .25 (Prodded to short leg. 102 min, 66 balls, 3 fours) P N Kirsten c Stewart b DeFreitas. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .104 (Caught at deep gully off shoulder of bat. 294 min, 226 balls, 13 fours) J N Rhodes c Rhodes b Gough. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 46 (Inside edge to keeper. 130 min, 97 balls, 3 fours, 1 six) B M McMillan not out. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .57 (147 min, 102 balls, 6 fours, 2 sixes) C R Matthews not out. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0 (5 min, 1 ball) Extras (b4 lb7 nb11). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .22 Total (for 7, 421 min, 99 overs). . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 318 Fall (cont): 2-31 (G Kirsten), 3-31 (Cronje), 4-91 (Richardson), 5-105 (Wessels), 6-199 (Rhodes), 7-314 (P Kirsten).
To bat: P S de Villiers, A A Donald.
Bowling: Gough 27-3-100-2 (nb6) (9-0-43-1, 7-1-22-0, 6-1-22-1, 5-1-13-0); DeFreitas 26-6-73-3 (nb3) (12-3-18-2, 7-1-28-0, 2-1-3-0, 2-0-10-0, 3-1-14-1); Fraser 22-3-65-2 (nb3) (2-0-13-0, 6-1-17-2, 6-0- 10-0, 4-1-11-0, 4-1-14-0); Tufnell 20-7-52-0 (6-4-8-0, 8-2-23-0, 2-0-5-0, 2-1-5-0, 2-0-11-0); Gooch 3-0-9-0 (2-0-3-0, 1-0-6-0); Hick 1-0-8-0 (one spell).
Progress: Overnight: 31-1 (G Kirsten 7, Richardson 13) 9 overs. 50: 73 min, 16.5 overs. 100: 140 min, 32.5 overs. Lunch: 122-5 (P Kirsten 9, Rhodes 9) 37 overs. 150: 191 min, 45 overs. 200: 276 min, 65.2 overs. Tea: 205-6 (P Kirsten 50, McMillan 1) 67 overs. 250: 342 min, 81.1 overs. New ball: 85 overs, 265-6. 300: 406 min, 96.1 overs. P Kirsten's 50: 161 min, 133 balls, 4 fours. 100: 291 min, 223 balls, 13 fours.
McMillan's 50: 133 min, 92 balls, 5 fours, 2 sixes.
Umpires: S R Dunne, D R Shepherd, J C Balderstone (TV replays). Match Referee: P J P Burge. -----------------------------------------------------------------
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