Amla leaves England with uphill struggle

South Africa build a big lead then remove captain Strauss to leave the tourists in need of last-day heroics

Familiarity may help to breed contentment today as England bat for their lives in the First Test. To avoid going behind in the series against South Africa, they must display resolve, tenacity and purpose, all three in abundance with aggression into the bargain if they are to entertain slender hopes of winning.

But to intimate victory is to enter the realms of the fanciful. It is survival that will matter, escaping from Centurion with a draw and hoping to regroup in Durban next week for something more profitable.

That was on their minds on Wednesday morning when they picked a team of six batsmen and four bowlers, hardly a combination intended to boldly go where no man had gone before. But the prospects of achieving even that receded starkly in the evening of the fourth day as England, left six overs to bat after South Africa declared at 301 for 7, lost their captain, Andrew Strauss, to the eighth ball of the innings.

The equation now is this. The tourists have nine wickets in hand, they are 352 runs behind, they have 90 overs to negotiate. It will be no easy task on a fifth day pitch certain to have worn and on which the occasional ball has shot through low for most of the match.

But it was still in surprisingly good order last night considering the lush, if pockmarked lawn that it resembled the day before the match began. Here was a place where all those elusive green shoots of recovery for seam bowlers appeared to have been transplanted at once yet it was spinners who prospered.

England should be encouraged by recent precedent. Against Australia in Cardiff last July, they appeared certain to lose throughout the final day as wickets went down like daffodils in the wind. Somehow, they earned a draw with one wicket intact and went on to win a famous series victory. The tourists will have no desire to leave it as close today (though they would settle for it if necessary) but will be well aware that their objective is attainable.

All the evidence suggests that as in the Ashes last summer there is a fag paper between these sides. Whoever blinks first at crucial moments will have their fingers burned, so to speak.

After a sparkling early morning yesterday when they must briefly have dreamed the happiest of dreams, England, again showing themselves to be hopeless at implementing the new umpiring review system, were powerless to prevent South Africa forging an imposing lead. It was built with solidity by Hashim Amla who completed his seventh Test hundred towards the end of the day with his 10th four. The manner of his dismissal, bowled by a grubber from Jimmy Anderson, will have sent shivers down English spines.

Amla shared two key partnerships. The first for the fifth wicket of 119 with AB de Villiers ensured that South Africa did not cede any more valuable ground to their opponents. Both men were given reprieves after England asked for rejected lbw verdicts against them to be re-examined. Replays showed that although both balls seemed to be hitting they were also outside the so-called zone of certainty. But had the umpires originally accepted the appeals would have been upheld on appeal.

The second partnership of 75 for the seventh wicket with Mark Boucher extended the lead close to where South Africa could feel safe if not quite over the hills and far away.

In the second session they added 102 runs in 29 overs, positively rampant after the funereal pace at which both sides had scored for several stages of the match.

In the third they upped the ante and when Morne Morkel plundered 18 off a Stuart Broad over late in the day, England were looking desperate. They needed the sanctuary of the dressing room to try to regroup. But the last thing they wanted was to bat last night.

Until Amla was surprised by the 213th ball he faced the pitch grew flatter as the day went on and England's weary bowling matched it. Little that has happened in this match has been a convincing advertisement for the notion that four bowlers might be enough to take of the home side's wickets. Then again, South Africa opted for a similar combination, presumably with the same outcome, a draw, at the forefront of their minds. By the time the Second Test starts in Kingsmead on Boxing Day, it is South Africa's fervent hope that Jacques Kallis will be fit to bowl. That could extend the difference to two fag papers.

Kallis the batsman was one of the two invaluable wickets that England would have craved early yesterday. The other was that of South Africa captain, Graeme Smith. Both duly arrived and if England had been asking for a pot of tea and sandwiches they could not have come more precisely to order. Smith was undone by a ball from Graham Onions that nipped back and was bowled off a faint inside edge. Kallis, after an unsettled stay of 45 minutes, mis-pulled a short ball from Broad and was pouched at deep mid-wicket. Since the nightwatchman, Paul Harris, had gone earlier in the piece South Africa were in deep trouble at 48 for 4, only 110 ahead.

England's late order heroics of the previous day, it seemed, had given them a crucial edge. But the ball got old, South Africa retrenched. Only eight wickets fell in the day. If only wickets fall tomorrow, England will not have lost.

Scoreboard

First Test, day four of five (SuperSport Park, Centurion)

England won toss

South Africa – First Innings 418 (J H Kallis 120, J P Duminy 56; G P Swann 5-110).

England – First Innings 356 (G P Swann 85, P D Collingwood 50; P L Harris 5-123).

South Africa – Second Innings

A G Prince b Anderson (3 balls, 4 min) 0

*G C Smith b Onions (36 balls, 53 min, 1 four) 12

P L Harris b Anderson (17 balls, 26 min, 2 fours) 11

H M Amla b Anderson (213 balls, 315 min, 10 fours) 100

J H Kallis c Cook b Broad (32 balls, 45 min) 4

A B de Villiers c Bell b Broad (101 balls, 136 min, 6 fours, 1 six) 64

J P Duminy lbw b Anderson (27 balls, 33 min, 2 fours) 11

†M V Boucher not out (73 balls, 96 min, 9 fours, 1 six) 63

M Morkel not out (13 balls, 21 min, 4 fours) 22

Extras (lb10, w4) 14

Total (For 7 wickets dec, 85.5 overs) 301

Fall: 1-2 2-20 3-34 4-46 5-165 6-191 7-266

Did not bat: M Ntini, F de Wet.

Bowling: Anderson 20.5-1-73-4; Onions 16-3-50-1; Broad 16-5-58-2; Swann 27-3-91-0; Collingwood 6-1-19-0.

England – Second Innings

*A J Strauss c Boucher b M Morkel (3 balls, 5 min) 1

A N Cook not out (17 balls) 4

J M Anderson not out (16 balls, 1 four) 6

Extras0

Total (6 overs) 11

Fall: 1-5.

To bat: I J L Trott, K P Pietersen, P D Collingwood, I R Bell, †M J Prior, S C J Broad, G P Swann, G Onions.

Bowling: Ntini 2-1-5-0; M Morkel 3-1-6-1; Harris 1-1-0-0.

Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pak) and S J Davies (Aus).

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