England are five days away from glory. Win, draw or tie the fourth Test which begins here today against South Africa and they will have procured a series in which few but their own mothers – and probably not all of them – gave them a prayer. So gripping has the affair been, so close have the teams been throughout a pulsating winter that a tie would hardly be a surprise.
To lose the match to a side which, when this tour started, was ranked as No 1 in the world would be no disgrace. But it would be bitterly disappointing for a team so perceptively led by Andrew Strauss, which has constantly traded blow for blow with the South Africans over the past 10 weeks and somehow find themselves 1-0 up with one to play.
No rational judge is expecting a tame draw. A sporting pitch, the necessity for South Africa to stake everything on winning and the telling statistic that there has a been a positive result in each of the last nine Tests at The Wanderers render it all but impossible. What an end the match can provide to Strauss's inaugural year as captain.
He took over in calamitous circumstances in the second week of January, 2009 after his predecessor, Kevin Pietersen, and the coach, Peter Moores had both been unceremoniously deposed. Bit by bit, match by match, Strauss has built a new England, one where individual responsibility and collective will have come to play a prominent part.
It brought them the Ashes and by Monday it may have landed them the Basil d'Oliveira Trophy, held by South Africa following their 2-1 win in England in 2008. Without those qualities, make no mistake, England would not have drawn the two matches in this series, the first and third, that they should have lost. They know it and perhaps more crucially South Africa know it.
"I think team spirit is tangible," said Strauss yesterday. "It is hard to influence it other than having the right sort of people around and trying to foster it as much as you can and trying to include players in as many things as possible rather than being top heavy with senior players which I think we have been guilty of in the past.
"It's great having a side full of 11 world-class players but you can also have a side that is greater than the sum of its parts if you get the environment right."
If South Africa lose they will spend a lifetime wondering how this series got away. They are trying desperately hard at present not to reflect on the two matches in which they were one wicket away from victory – two of only 19 in Test history in which the side batting last have hung on with nine men out.
"In two out of three Tests we have come close and we just lacked the final blow," said South Africa's captain, Graeme Smith. "You have to give credit to England's resilience. When they have been put under pressure they have handled it well. The fact that they have held on for two nine-down draws has created an epic series. It's hard to sit here and complain."
Although England declined formally to name their team yesterday, they will be unchanged for the fourth successive match. It will be the first time in a series of four or more matches that the same XI has played throughout for 125 years. In 1884-85 the team led by Arthur Shrewsbury beat Australia 3-2.
South Africa will probably make one change by awarding a first cap to the 20-year-old left-arm fast bowler, Wayne Parnell. Much will be expected of Parnell in the years to come, but not in this match.
All South Africa will turn to Dale Steyn, the best fast bowler operating in Test cricket. There will be a huge onus on bowlers in the match. The pitch is not the spiteful green demon that had been confidently predicted but it will certainly be testing for batsmen.
Graeme Swann, England's leading wicket-taker and their best bowler in the series by a mile, should have a quieter time. Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Graham Onions have all had their moments in this series but the suspicion is difficult to allay that Steyn's time has come. He missed the first Test in Centurion because of a recurrent hamstring strain but has been improving by the over since.
His spell with the second new ball on the fifth day at Newlands was a thing of shock and awe, and is being hailed as one of the best of all spells not to take a wicket. Resist Steyn and England may well prevail, but that order is as tall as a bouncer from Morne Morkel.
England will need all their six batsmen. It was never their intention to come into this series with only four front-line bowlers but if it works one last time it may be some while before they resort to their once preferred policy of five bowlers. That was something made possible by the presence of Andrew Flintoff – but they have not missed Flintoff these past 10 weeks.
South Africa will be quicker, indeed they will be ferocious. If England can repel them it will be one of their greatest victories.
Of final Tests, England have won five out of six since 2000 that would affect the outcome of the series.
Fourth Test: Probable teams and match details
G C Smith (captain)
H M Amla
J H Kallis
A B de Villiers
J P Duminy
M V Boucher (wkt)
W D Parnell
D W Steyn
P L Harris
A J Strauss (captain)
A N Cook
I J L Trott
K P Pietersen
P D Collingwood
I R Bell
M J Prior (wkt)
S C J Broad
G P Swann
J M Anderson
Venue The Wanderers, Johannesburg
Umpires T Hill (NZ) and S Davis (Aus).
TV 8am-4pm, Sky Sports 1, HD1
A sporting surface but not a malicious one, it will reward bowling precision and batting concentration. The groundsman expects the match to go into the fifth day but only if it rains.
Warm and partly cloudy, with a slight chance of rain late in the afternoon. Maximum temperature 26C.
England's record at the Wanderers
The visitors have a mixed record at the ground, having won, drawn and lost in their three games in Johannesburg since South Africa's re-admission in 1991.
Inspirational batting from captain Michael Atherton, who batted the entire final day to register 185 not out, helped salvage a draw.
Alec Stewart's 86 and a last-gasp 48 from Andrew Caddick couldn't rescue an innings defeat for the tourists.
Matthew Hoggard's seven-wicket demolition of South Africa's middle order on the final day sealed an outstanding victory.Reuse content