England throw away hard-earned advantage

Fourth Test: Butcher and Trescothick fall after unnecessary interruption for bad light as batsmen battle to make up for bowlers' shortcomings
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South Africa 342 England 197-3

It is hard to believe that Australia, in a similar position, would have acted in the same way. Chasing down South Africa's competitive first innings total of 342, England were well placed on 164 for 1 when Mark Butcher and Marcus Trescothick were approached by the umpires, Simon Taufel and Billy Bowden, and offered the light. Having caned poor bowling around the ground for the previous 45 minutes the pair had their opponents exactly where they wanted them.

That play restarted 30 minutes later and the time lost can be made up over the next three days is irrelevant. England's decision, whether it came from the two men in the middle, or Michael Vaughan and Duncan Fletcher in the stands, highlighted the biggest obstacle that faces this team as they attempt to become a force in the game. By accepting the umpires offer they showed that they still spend too much time fearing the downside of decisions rather than the opportunities they create.

It happened last year at Trent Bridge when Alec Stewart and Andrew Flintoff had India in a similar predicament. It was then hard to feel sympathy for England as they scrambled and failed to bowl the visitors out on the last day. From this moment on, India, who stayed on and smashed England's attack everywhere in worse conditions at this ground, came back into a series they eventually dominated.

Only time will tell whether this decision has a similar effect on this series, but it serves Trescothick, Butcher and England right that the pair where dismissed within 30 minutes of the restart. Before the break the two left-handers had looked in wonderful form and England had the initiative. They were making batting appear simple on a pitch where runs should be ever harder to come by.

The picture had changed when England's two new batsmen, Nasser Hussain and Ed Smith, were made a similar offer 40 minutes later. Still finding their way and with the score now on 197 for 3, they could not be blamed for walking off in such circumstances, but during the session South Africa had taken two vital wickets in 10.1 overs for 33 runs. From a position of dominance England now find themselves 145 runs behind against a team with their tails up.

Trescothick was the first to fall five minutes after play restarted. The opener had added one to his score when he looked to clip a ball through the leg side. To his horror he chipped a leading edge straight down the ground only to see a leaping Jacques Kallis dive to his right and take a magnificent one-handed catch. What Trescothick was saying to himself as he left the field to muted applause could only be repeated after the watershed.

With their spirits and confidence lifted South Africa's bowlers suddenly started getting the ball in the right areas. Left-handers are notorious for messing up a bowler's line but before this breakthrough the visitors' tactics were hard to explain.

It appeared during Butcher and Trescothick's 142-run partnership that either South Africa had not looked at video footage of the pair batting or the bowlers were failing miserably to put agreed plans into action. A glance at Butcher's magnificent match-winning innings of 173 not out here against Australia in 2001 would have told them that he was an excellent cutter of the ball. But the tourists bowlers kept feeding Butcher's strongest scoring area.

Monde Zondeki had been forced off the field with a side strain that may keep him out of the remainder of this match but a strong word to his bowlers during the delay from Eric Simons, the South African coach, appeared to have the desired affect. Instead of mindlessly banging the ball in halfway down, they pitched the ball up and Butcher's dismissal for 77 was a superb example of the profit available from bowling the right length here.

Vaughan, who must have been fuming about the last hour's cricket as well as his own soft dismissal, would not have had his mood helped by the inability of his bowlers to knock over the tail in the morning. By the time Dewald Pretorius edged a James Kirtley leg-cutter through to Stewart the tourists' last three wickets had added 200 in four hours. Despite watching Gary Kirsten and Zondeki dominate the final session on the first day, Vaughan would have expected to be batting well before he finally was, at 12.40.

On a pitch still offering occasional assistance, Vaughan's quintet of pace men bowled far too short. When the ball has seamed off the pitch it has often done too much by the time it has reached the batsman and has constantly beaten the bat without taking the edge.

Zondeki, who added nine runs to his overnight 50 before becoming James Anderson's sole victim, was not the only tailender to post a career-best score. Ntini, who had only reached double figures seven times in 33 Tests, enjoyed the freedom Kirsten's grafting innings had given him and slogged 32 valuable runs. Indeed, the fast bowler seemed disappointed when Kirsten, looking for quick runs, chipped one to Martin Bicknell at mid-on.

Though most of the full-house crowd had missed the left-hander at his most dogged on Thursday, they gave the 35-year-old a standing ovation as he walked off with a potentially match-winning 130 to his name. In his 458-minute stay Kirsten may have struck only 17 of the 323 balls he faced for four but it is because of his efforts and England's fear of failure that South Africa are still in this match.