Aided and abetted by the improbable combination of umpire reviews, bad light and spin bowling, England kept their noses in front yesterday. It was not a decisive, Kauto Star turn of foot down the home straight but it was solid, phlegmatic,and professional for the second day running in the second Test against South Africa, the side who would be the best in the world.
For the second successive match, the tourists' off-break bowler, Graeme Swann was their leading wicket-taker. He has now taken four wickets or more in seven innings of his 13 matches, a tidy return by anybody's standards and by those of an English finger-spin bowler operating on largely unforgiving surfaces, quite astonishing.
South Africa, thanks to characteristic stubbornness – the national animal of the sporting nation remains a springbok though it should be a mule – hung around longer than England would have liked. But by the predictably early close, as bad light descended with 22 overs nominally remaining, England, on 103 for one, had reduced the deficit to 240.
It was unfortunate for the tourists that their only wicket to fall was that of their captain, Andrew Strauss, who had produced the batting of this series so far at the start of the innings. Pulling, cutting, occasionally driving, Strauss reached 50 from only 49 balls, clearly determined that England would declare their intent.
He was dismissed during an incisive spell after tea by Morne Morkel, the tall South Africa fast bowler, who came round the wicket and made every, snaking, lifting ball count. Strauss managed to escape the walk back to the pavilion once when his requested review of an lbw verdict was rightly upheld, slow motion replays indicating that his bat had touched the ball before it rammed into his pad.
There could be no reprieve a few minutes later, however, when the ball again slanted in at the stumps and, straightening once more, took an inside edge. But this time its course took it on to the middle stump. It was a wicket that South Africa desperately needed by then, because England had made merry as well as light of South Africa's late resistance which might have shifted the balance of proceedings.
Strauss imposed himself on South Africa's bowlers – not least Makhaya Ntini who was short of the necessary during three sad overs with the new ball – and England rattled along at four runs an over. They reached 50 from 10 overs and were 103 for one after 26.2 when they were forced off.
South Africa, too, had their moments earlier in the day, moments they needed after sliding headlong to 175 for five overnight. That catastrophe was avoided was probably as certain as intervention by the weather, which locals continue to insist is unseasonal but which has endured on and off, but mostly on, for eight months now.
If a team wanted two men to get them out of a hole they might well choose AB de Villiers, one of the men of the year in world cricket, and Mark Boucher, one of the men of the decade. With a typical flourish they took the attack to England and were threatening to become much more than an irritant when Swann had a leg before appeal turned down by Amiesh Saheba.
When it was decided to ask for a review, there cannot have been much optimism in the England team: they had never successfully asked for one before. But lo and behold, Swann, according to third umpire Steve Davis, had got it right for once and Boucher was sent on his way.
The little triumph must have gone to Swann's head because his later referral of a not out decision against Morkel was roundly rebuffed. But after Stuart Broad accounted for De Villiers with a probing, full-length ball, it was Swann nonetheless who won two more leg- before decisions, against Morkel eventually, and Paul Harris, who somewhat needlessly asked for a review himself.
The right decisions, by and large, are being reached under the new system but it is at a cost. Teams cannot celebrate a wicket as they used to do and batsmen are too easily prone not to take the umpires' word.
It is holding up the rhythm of play and while it is here to stay and is aimed at achieving higher standards, it remains a mystery to most spectators because the slow-motion replays are not shown. Test cricket is fighting for its place in the modern world, if not for its very existence and a procedure that has been introduced to help may prove to be a disagreeable encumbrance.
England were probably content with South Africa at 285 for nine. Had they taken the last wicket immediately, it was the sort of total they would have settled for having lost the toss. But Dale Steyn, assisted by some errant bowling down the leg side, marshalled the last-wicket partnership superbly.
A year ago in the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne, Steyn made 76 in a significant partnership with JP Duminy, which provided a platform for South Africa to win. This time of year must suit him.
Three times off the fourth ball of consecutive overs, he plonked Swann over long on for six and he and Ntini put on an irksome but delightful 58 for the 10th wicket.
It was a partnership designed to disturb opposition opening batsmen. But Strauss was undaunted. Alastair Cook, hesitant at first, and Jonathan Trott, understandably annoying the opposition to distraction because of the amount of time he took to settle at the crease, survived.
Turning points: How day two's action unfolded
Swann gets England going
AB de Villiers and Mark Boucher bring up the 50 partnership but it is broken by Swann, the latter going with the help of a video referral.
De Villiers dozes
De Villiers reaches 50 but switches off and nicks one to Matt Prior off Stuart Broad. Paul Harris soon follows and South Africa are eight down.
England closing in
Straight after lunch Swann (right) gets one to turn into Morne Morkel and England look to be on the point of mopping things up.
Steyn cuts loose
Dale Steyn, taking his cue from Makhaya Ntini, carts Swann for six as the South Africans' last-wicket pair reach 50. The frustration etched on Andrew Strauss's face is finally relieved as James Anderson finds an edge after a rather tired waft from Steyn.
Strauss carries the fight
England begin their reply on the front foot, Strauss pulling and cutting Morkel for successive fours, but Alastair Cook is still scratching around for form.
Strauss reaches his fastest Test half-century with a single off Harris just before tea, and at 59 for 0 England have made a good start.
Morkel spoils the fun
Morkel sends two of Strauss's stumps flying. Jonathan Trott survives a few hairy moments before bad light ends play.
First and second days of five: England trail South Africa by 240 runs with nine first-innings wickets remaining
South Africa won toss
SOUTH AFRICA First Innings
*G C Smith run out (Cook)......... 75
186 balls 9 fours
A G Prince c Swann b Anderson......... 2
H M Amla lbw b Broad......... 2
J H Kallis c Collingwood b Swann......... 75
132 balls 7 fours
A B de Villiers c Prior b Broad......... 50
98 balls 6 fours
J-P Duminy lbw b Onions......... 4
†M V Boucher lbw b Swann......... 39
50 balls 5 fours
M Morkel lbw b Swann......... 23
49 balls 2 fours
P L Harris lbw b Swann......... 2
D W Steyn c †Prior b Anderson......... 47
58 balls 3 fours 3 sixes
M Ntini not out......... 6
Extras (lb 17, b 1)......... 18
Total (108.3 overs)......... 343
Fall: 1-3 (Prince), 2-10 (Amla), 3-160 (Kallis), 4-166 (Smith), 5-170 (Duminy), 6-233 (Boucher), 7-269 (de Villiers), 8-280 (Harris), 9-285 (Morkel), 10-343 (Steyn).
Bowling: Anderson 23.3-4-75-2 (6-2-7-1, 2-0-10-0, 4-0-15-0, 4-0-17-0, 4-1-19-0, 3.3-1-9-1), Onions 23-6-62-1 (4-2-2-0, 4-2-8-0, 7-0-30-1, 4-0-10-0, 4-2-12-0), Broad 20-6-44-2 (5-0-18-1, 5-1-10-0, 3-2-7-0, 7-3-9-1), Swann 35-3-110-4 (2-0-13-0, 14-1-23-0, 3-0-8-1, 6-1-19-1, 10-1-47-2), J Trott 4-0-19-0 (1-0-2-0, 3-0-17-0), Pietersen 2-0-7-0 (1-0-4-0, 1-0-3-0), Collingwood 1-0-8-0.
Progress First day: 50: 20.5 overs, Lunch: 67-2 (Smith 29, Kallis 28) 25.0 overs, 100: 38.5 overs, 150: 53.4 overs, Tea: 151-2 (Kallis 74, Smith 65) 54.0 overs, Close of play: 175-5 (de Villiers 8) 61.0 overs. Progress Second day: 200: 69.0 overs, 250: 83.2 overs, Lunch: 284-8 (Morkel 23, Steyn 3) 95.0 overs, 300: 100.3 overs.
ENGLAND First Innings
*A J Strauss b Morkel......... 54
67 balls 9 fours
A N Cook not out......... 31
67 balls 5 fours
I J L Trott not out......... 17
25 balls 2 fours
Extras (nb 1)......... 1
Total (for 1, 26.2 overs)......... 103
Fall: 1-71 (Strauss).
To bat: K P Pietersen, P D Collingwood, I R Bell, †M J Prior, S C J Broad, G P Swann, J M Anderson, G Onions.
Bowling: D Steyn 8.2-1-30-0 (3-0-8-0, 1-0-4-0, 3-0-16-0, 1.2-1-2-0), M Ntini 3-0-25-0 (one spell), M Morkel 9-3-22-1 (one spell), J Kallis 2-0-12-0 (nb1) (one spell), P Harris 4-0-14-0 (1-0-1-0, 3-0-13-0).
Progress Second day 50 in 10.0 overs, Tea 59-0 (Strauss 50, Cook 8) 14.0 overs, 100 in 23.4 overs, Close of Play 103-1 (Cook 31, Trott 17) 26.2 overs.
Umpires: Aleem Dar (Oak) & A M Saheba (India).
TV replay umpire : S J Davis (Aus).
Match referee: J D Cloete (S Lanka).