James Lawton: Ntini chases last hurrah against familiar enemy

Trott may not be a pretty player but he is not inclined to bend to anyone's will

If it's true there are few more invigorating sights on a sports field than a number of South African-born combatants going to their limits there were few better places to be than here on this sunlit evening.

Not when a day of attrition turned into a series of raw and spectacular duels and Makhaya Ntini, who once herded cattle in the wind-scoured Eastern Cape, ached to bring perhaps one last flourish to his extraordinary story at the age of 32.

It also helped that one of the most trenchant characters around just happened to be captain of England.

Andrew Strauss is Johannesburg-born, of course, but then he would pass easily for the City high-flier he was intending to become before he was caught up in the lure that beguiles so many in the land of his birth.

What South African sportsmen tend to do is battle and you could see that quality beginning to blaze as the second day of the first Test match eventually entered a potentially decisive phase.

Really it was hard to know quite who was playing for the highest personal stakes as Ntini's large personal following sang and danced as he raced to the wicket when he was called up again by his captain Graeme Smith for a fresh assault in the last few overs.

His assignment was to break the partnership of Strauss and Jonathan Trott – Cape Town-born Trott this is – as they fought to repair the damage of the early loss of opener Alastair Cook.

Ntini's impact had been impressive when only a bungled attempt at a slip catch by AB de Villiers prevented Cook becoming an instant victim of Ntini's still hard-burning passion to maintain his iconic status in a country where he started life shoeless and without any serious hope of travelling much beyond the boundaries of his impoverished village.

Cook fell soon enough to Ntini's new bowling partner, 29-year-old Friedel de Wet. While Ntini herded cows, De Wet studied technology at the University of Pretoria, though no one quite knows where he learnt his eccentric skip after a few strides of his run-up. Last night, though, you couldn't begin to draw a line between the extent of their shared commitment.

De Wet has scuffled around the lower echelons of cricket, including playing in English minor leagues, but now he had the chance to perform at the highest level and when he struck out Cook, caught behind by Mark Boucher, there was that kind of anticipation which so swiftly overtakes all the citadels of South African sports, places like Ellis Park in Johannesburg and Newlands in Cape Town, when the nation's rugby players and cricketers might be on the point of going in for the kill.

Indeed, it might have happened when De Wet made his breakthrough and Ntini, the old but still hugely motivated legend, attempted to forge a new and deadly partnership. The problem was Strauss and Trott, Englishmen, or certainly English sportsmen, by choice but no doubt touched, perhaps in the cradle, with the great imperative of South African sports competition.

It is to resist the most unpromising of circumstances and few can have felt the obligation more strongly than the England captain did here last night.

His decision to ask the South Africans to bat when he won the toss on Wednesday was teetering towards misadventure some time before South Africa were finally dismissed for 418 shortly after tea. When Cook went early, Strauss was required again to show the obdurate streak that carried him through against Ricky Ponting last summer. So, of course, he did.

With South Africa's main strike bowler Dale Steyn out with injury, it put a huge burden on Ntini and young De Wet to build on the latter's early success. But if Cook had been susceptible to their will, Strauss wasn't – and nor was Trott.

Trott came into the final Ashes Test and provided a vital injection of fortitude and though he had one bad moment here when awaiting the decision of the television umpire after being trapped by a fine delivery from left-arm spinner Paul Harris, he was again a man of genuine substance. He kept his captain company to the close, riding shotgun with ever increasing authority. He is not a pretty player perhaps, but he is not inclined to bend to anyone's will. At 88 for 1, and with Strauss undefeated on 44, England are plainly capable of moving briskly into serious contention.

Yes, England, even if it is a term that does invite some scorn around here. South African skipper Smith asking before the game if players like Trott and Kevin Pietersen, particularly, were English or South African, and if they were the former now they would be treated accordingly.

That was to say they would face one of the sternest tests of their careers. Perhaps it will be so, but there are other members of the England team who in the difficulties created by yesterday's dogged performance from South Africa showed they are comfortable enough in their own, and, yes, English skins.

First among these was spinner Graeme Swann, who finished with 5 for 110 and never lost his poise despite operating for so long against the weight of character and talent of the great Jacques Kallis.

That South Africa's, and one of the world's, leading batsmen added a mere eight runs yesterday to his superb 112 was a huge deliverance for England. Before Kallis went, Strauss was contemplating at least another one whole day's hard labour while considering the extent of his folly in sending in the South Africans.

Folly, though, is a relative term in the surge and counter-surge of a Test match and when the contest resumes today there can be no sense that Strauss has been forced into a corner. He is fighting again on something much closer to even terms and you could see the confidence that had been regathered when he carried his bat home last night.

It is also true that another member of the England team has rather a lot to prove sometime before dusk today. His name is Kevin Pietersen and no doubt he would have liked to have been involved in last night's dispute. Indeed, he may have considered it his right. He, was after all, born in a place called Pietermaritzburg. He would rarely have felt quite so at home.

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