Amid heart-stopping drama which only one form of cricket and perhaps only one sport can produce, England escaped with a draw in the First Test yesterday. For the second time in six months they had only one paltry wicket remaining when the end finally came after a compelling climax.
Throughout most of the final day it seemed as if they would rely on two South Africans, Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott, to repel the Proteas. But at the last it was two yeomen from Durham who ensured that the series stayed level at 0-0 with three matches to play.
Paul Collingwood faced 99 balls for his unbeaten 26 as South Africa tore through England with the second new ball, but it was Graham Onions who faced the six, nerve-shredding balls of the final over. So accomplished was he in fending off Makhaya Ntini, in his 100th Test match, that it seemed almost routine.
For a few overs, South Africa looked irresistible. Friedel de Wet, in his first Test match, was fast, accurate and achieved pace and movement while Morne Morkel at the other end was scarcely less potent. England, 201 for four when South Africa threw the dice one last time by taking the new ball, swiftly slipped to 218 for nine. The kitchen sink accompanied every delivery and presiding over it all was South Africa's captain, Graeme Smith, who sported a huge pair of sunglasses with green lenses. For all the world, he resembled an anti-superhero from the pages of a Marvel comic.
The day was split into three distinct parts. England were in profound peril at the start of it after losing two early wickets, the nightwatchman Jimmy Anderson and their other opener, Alastair Cook, to the first ball he received from Paul Harris.
When Pietersen joined Trott, the tourists were 27 for three. Remedial work was needed and it could not be done quickly. Pietersen did not play his normal game but he would not be subjugated either. If the ball was there to hit, he hit it. Trott was different altogether, willing himself to stay in, rarely playing an attacking stroke.
As was the case throughout the match, when the hardness went out of the ball the pitch seemed a wholly different proposition. Neither Pietersen nor Trott could have more thoroughly displayed their credentials to play for their adopted country against the country in which they were born and raised. Perhaps it helped them to know what to expect from their erstwhile compatriots.
When their stand reached 145 – Pietersen was 19 runs short of a hundred and the pair were steering England expertly towards safety – there occurred a spectacularly crazy moment which will keep television blooper programmes in business for decades. Early in the final session, which was promising to bring a shake of hands on the draw sooner rather than later, Pietersen gently pushed a ball from De Wet into the covers. For reasons that might have defied logic in the World Twenty20 final with one run needed to win off the final ball he set off for a single.
Trott did not respond, Pietersen kept going and De Wet, in his follow-through, had the simple job of removing the bails at the striker's end with nary a batsman in sight. But that was not the moment on which the Test match hinged, for it merely brought in Collingwood, one of the heroes of the Cardiff Test last July when England drew with nine wickets down.
Collingwood set out his stall as he did that day. He might as well have pulled up a drawbridge and nailed some armour plating across it for all the chances he gave South Africa to pass. Trott was of similar disposition.
But suddenly, it changed. In the second over with the new ball, De Wet unleashed a ferocious delivery at Trott which lifted and took the shoulder of the bat. AB de Villiers, at third slip, held a wonderful one-handed catch, diving low to his left.
This was the signal for the match to shift on its axis. Ian Bell also received a ball that bounced higher than he might have liked and moved a fraction, but unfortunately he was a willing accomplice in dabbing at it. Mark Boucher took the resultant edge which was hardly in a lesser category than its immediate predecessor.
Matt Prior also received a snorter and the unsung De Wet had three wickets in 19 balls. He could have had more. Smith shrewdly brought on Harris to bowl at the left-handed Stuart Broad, sensing the change of pace might do the trick. Broad duly edged to give Boucher his fifth catch.
England, more in hope than expectation, asked for the decision to be reviewed but the verdict was a foregone conclusion. So it was when Graeme Swann, man of the match for heroics much earlier in the piece, was pinned leg-before with one from Morkel that scuttled.
In came Onions. He looked calm, he played calmly. But when the batsmen took a single off the fourth ball of the penultimate over it left Onions at the danger end for the last six balls. He negotiated them with aplomb and England, as they did in Cardiff, lived to fight another day.
Centurion Park: Scoreboard
England won toss
SOUTH AFRICA First Innings 418 (Kallis 120, Duminy 56; Swann 5-110).
ENGLAND First Innings 356 (Collingwood 50, Swann 85; Harris 5-123).
SOUTH AFRICA Second Innings
Friday Overnight: 9-1
*G C Smith b Onions......... 12
36 balls 1 four
P L Harris b Anderson......... 11
17 balls 2 four
H M Amla b Anderson......... 100
213 balls 10 fours
J H Kallis c Cook b Broad......... 4
A B de Villiers c Bell b Broad......... 64
101 balls 6 fours 1 sixes
J P Duminy c Collingwood b Swann......... 11
27 balls 2 fours
†M V Boucher not out......... 63
72 balls 9 fours 1 sixes
M Morkel not out......... 22
13 balls 4 fours
Extras (lb 10, w 4)......... 14
Total (7 wkts dec, 85.5 overs)......... 301
Fall: 1-2 (Prince), 2-20 (Harris), 3-34 (Smith), 4-46 (Kallis), 5-165 (de Villiers), 6-191 (Duminy), 7-266 (Amla).
Did not bat: M Ntini, F de Wet.
Bowling: J Anderson 20.5-1-73-4, G Onions 16-3-50-1, S Broad 16-5-58-2, G Swann 27-3-91-0, P Collingwood 6-1-19-0.
ENGLAND Second Innings
*A Strauss c Boucher b Ntini......... 1
A Cook c Smith b Harris......... 12
56 balls 1 four
J Anderson c Boucher b de Wet......... 10
23 balls 2 fours
J Trott c de Villiers b de Wet......... 69
212 balls 7 fours
K Pietersen run out (de Wet)......... 81
143 balls 10 fours
P Collingwood not out......... 26
99 balls 6 fours
I Bell c Boucher b de Wet......... 2
†M Prior c Boucher b de Wet......... 0
S Broad c Boucher b Harris......... 0
G Swann lbw b Morkel......... 2
G Onions not out......... 1
Extras (b 10, lb 3, nb 11)......... 24
Total (9 wkts, 96 overs)......... 228
Fall: 1-5 (Strauss), 2-16 (Anderson), 3-27 (Cook), 4-172 (Pietersen), 5-205 (Trott), 6-207 (Bell), 7-208 (Prior), 8-209 (Broad), 9-218 (Swann).
Bowling: M Ntini 18-7-41-0, M Morkel 18-3-46-2, P Harris 26-11-51-2, F de Wet 23-8-55-4, J Duminy 8-2-17-0, J Kallis 3-1-5-0.
Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pak) & S J Davis (Aus).
TV replay umpire : A M Saheba (India).
Player of the match: Swann.