Sometime today, maybe tomorrow, England will lose the Fourth Test. It will be a fitting outcome to a riveting match and a gripping series, which South Africa do not deserve to lose and England do not deserve to win.
There is the faint prospect that the weather will be so bad that South Africa will not have time to bowl out England a second time, the still fainter one that England, three wickets down, can somehow survive two more days. But it would be a travesty of the cricket that has been played both in the past four weeks and the past three days.
The tourists have unquestionably had their moments, several of them, and their performance at Durban to win the Second Test by an innings was as complete as any by an England side for years. But for much of the rest of the time, not least in this match, they have been hanging on. They have been resilient, but that is different from meriting leaving here with the Basil D'Oliveira Trophy.
At the last, pummelled by opponents who fully recognise what their just deserts should be, England have also been distracted by extraneous matters. The so-called Decision Review System stalked them yesterday. It started with Graeme Smith on Friday, when he was given not out caught behind on 15, but it continued throughout the third day. By the end the DRS was mocking England.
Whereas it had saved South Africa's captain, Smith, because the third umpire, Daryl Harper, had not heard a purported snick on his stump micro-phone, it did for England's captain, Andrew Strauss, when his review late yesterday of an lbw decision was struck out because technology showed the ball was just shaving the bails. This followed the losses of Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott to a ferocious new-ball spell when England started their second innings 235 behind, South Africa having declared at 423 for 7. They were perilously, probably hopelessly, placed at 48 for 3 at the close.
When England needed every ounce of their fading energy to concentrate on repelling the rampant South Africans one last time, the issue of the DRS has compromised their efforts. They will claim that the fuss about Smith's non-dismissal when he was on 15 in South Africa's first innings – which has led to discussions and investigations at the highest level of the International Cricket Council – has not affected their playing endeavours.
But they could hardly fail to notice that their coach, Andy Flower, was making an official protest or that the chairman of their board, Giles Clarke, was calling for a scrutiny of the entire structure. Of course England were aggrieved by the verdict which allowed Smith to score 90 more runs. They were convinced that he had edged the ball, and their management team must have conveyed their deep unhappiness about what they saw as a dereliction of duty by Harper.
According to England, though not the ICC, Harper failed to turn up the volume knob on his stump microphone sufficiently to enable him to hear the snick. The incident became known yesterday as Knobgate. England confirmed their grievances by demanding that the ICC reinstate the review they had lost as a result of Harper's refusal to advise the on-field umpire, Tony Hill, to reverse his decision.
Quite what they achieved by this is unknown – except that it seemed to make it official. It was obvious that no review could be reinstated and that it would certainly not happen before South Africa's innings was over.
On the review front, it all became much worse for England as South Africa inexorably enhanced their advantage. Everything that could go against Strauss's players did so. It had all started so well, too. Nobody could reasonably accuse this England side of lying down and rolling over, and although they were already 35 runs behind when the third day started they took the early wickets they craved.
In short order, Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis and JP Duminy were removed. England were no longer allowing South Africa to ride roughshod over them. Then the DRS came into view.
Twice AB de Villiers was granted a stay of execution, both times the bowler being Graeme Swann. The reviews for which he asked – a catch at leg slip and a leg before, both given out by Hill – were both overturned on Harper's advice. It looked as though the third umpire, castigated in many quarters overnight, had called the first decision correctly until a series of replays from various angles suggested he had acted too hastily. Poor Harper, poor England. The second reversal looked rather better.
All this could only lift South Africa and their wicketkeeper, Mark Boucher, was at his jauntiest with the bat, scampering hither and thither. He shared a partnership of 120 with De Villiers which finally did for England.
They grew visibly weary after their third mistreatment at the hands of the DRS. Boucher, given not out lbw to Swann, was allowed to stay when Harper looked at the replay on behalf of England and deemed the verdict should stand.
Eventually, De Villiers mis-pulled to mid-on, but Boucher found another able partner in the debutant Ryan McLaren.
England's seamers were adequate with the second new ball, no more, the batsmen playing and missing a few times. Ryan Sidebottom, a debatable selection ahead of Graham Onions here, did nothing particularly wrong but then he did nothing particularly right. Maybe if he had dismissed Smith yesterday, as he will be convinced until his dying day that he did, things might have gone differently.
England were bankers to lose quick wickets and so they did. With Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel breathing fire, Cook went to the former, Trott to the latter, both edging fast, lifting balls. No reviews were required.
England won toss
England – First innings 180 (D W Steyn 5-51)
South Africa – First Innings (Overnight: 215-2 G C Smith 105)
H M Amla c Prior b Broad (138 balls, 216 min, 8 fours) 75
J H Kallis c Anderson b Sidebottom (24 balls, 41 min) 7
A B de Villiers c Collingwood b Broad (119 balls, 165 min, 5 fours) 58
J P Duminy c Collingwood b Swann (20 balls, 31 min, 1 four) 7
†M V Boucher c Trott b Swann (118 balls, 196 min, 9 fours) 95
R McLaren not out (56 balls, 77 min, 5 fours) 33
D W Steyn not out (5 balls, 10 min) 1
Extras (b7, lb10, w5, nb1) 23
Total (7 wkts dec; 119 overs) 423
Fall: 1-36 2-201 3-217 4-217 5-235 6-355 7-419.
Did not bat: M Morkel, W D Parnell.
Bowling: Anderson 30-4-111-0; Sidebottom 31-6-98-2; Broad 29-4-83-3; Swann 23-0-93-2; Collingwood 6-1-21-0.
England – Second Innings
*A J Strauss lbw b Parnell (45 balls, 58 min, 3 fours) 22
A N Cook c Smith b M Morkel (6 balls, 14 min) 1
I J L Trott c de Villiers b Steyn (9 balls, 15 min) 8
K P Pietersen not out (20 balls, 2 fours) 9
P D Collingwood not out 0
Extras (lb4 w1 nb3) 8
Total (3 wkts, 13.2 overs) 48
Fall: 1-6 2-21 3-48.
To bat: I R Bell, †M J Prior, S C J Broad, G P Swann, J M Anderson, R J Sidebottom.
Bowling: Steyn 5.2-0-18-1; M Morkel 6-2-21-1; Parnell 2–0–5–1.
Umpires: S J Davis (Aus) and A L Hill (NZ).
TV umpire: d J Harper (Aus).
Match referee: R S Mahanama (Sri Lanka).