Another Test match, another nerve-shredding, last-ditch draw for England. Somehow they emerged intact once again yesterday by repelling South Africa on the last day of the third Test but yet again they could not have left it closer.
The hero of the hour, or at least the over, was once more Graham Onions, the Durham fast bowler. As he had in the first match of the series a month ago, he calmly defended the last six balls, delivered furiously by the South Africa fast bowler, Morne Morkel.
England finished on 290 for 9 after resisting for 141 overs in the second innings. Thus they stay 1-0 ahead in the rubber, saving the first and the third matches by a whisker, both times with a wicket left while being well adrift, but winning the second handsomely in Durban.
The tension between the sides, denied all round by the players but aggravated by South Africa's suspicions that England might have tampered with the ball, is palpable to everybody else. The home side are desperate to draw level in Johannesburg in the fourth and final Test match next week and their selectors meet today to consider emergency selection options.
The 447 runs England required for victory became more academic as the day progressed. It did so serenely for much of the time as Ian Bell, playing his best Test innings, and Paul Collingwood, in a familiar role, assembled a careful, mature partnership spread over five hours and 57 overs.
But when the breakthrough occurred it threatened to be terminal. When Onions, the last man, came to the wicket, with Graeme Swann at the other end there were still 17 balls to face, bowled by the speed- merchant combination of Morkel and Dale Steyn.
"With 10 overs to go I was thinking I'm quite happy with my training kit and trainers on and there was nothing to worry about," Onions said. He was admirable for the second time in a month. He played solidly and straight, unworried by the attentions of eight fielders close to the wicket, none of whom were exactly conducting proceedings as if in a monastery.
England's captain, Andrew Strauss, hailed Onions as a legend in front of millions of televisions viewers while conceding that he had not been confident when the last man went out to bat.
"We were in the same situation as in the first Test and it's not often the end of the story is the same," Strauss said. "I was feeling pretty comfortable until Graham went in there. He did a great job. As batsmen I always feel we should apologise for having put him in that situation."
Strauss, inevitably asked about the ball-tampering allegations that had been made against England and was clearly aggrieved at South Africa raising their suspicions with the match referee. "I do think, to a certain extent, announcing it to the media without being totally clear in their own minds what they were going to do, whether they were going to put in a formal complaint, is a little bit malicious."
Naturally, the captain was full of praise for the sixth-wicket pair of Collingwood and Bell, the last two specialist batsmen who came together with England at 160 for 5 and staring down the barrel. They were not separated for another 344 balls.
"It was an unbelievable partnership," he said. "Collingwood used his experience again, Bell has wanted to play an innings like that for England for a very long time and today he did and he did it exceptionally well. He was fully in control of his game right the way through until he got out at the end.
"It was Bell's best innings for England, probably in his own mind as much as anything. It wasn't just the fact that he did it, but the way he did it that I thought was exceptional."
Graeme Smith, South Africa's captain, was clearly disappointed but happy with his team's superb final effort.
"We arrived at this Test match with a lot of players under pressure and a lot of questions were being asked about us as a team. The guys showed a lot of character. I don't want to take anything away from England. I think they have showed a lot of strength of character."
The fourth Test will not for the faint-hearted.Reuse content