Late wicket gives England a No 1 hope

Superb Test match is wide open after England bowlers grab three victims to set up two gripping final days

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This has been a superb Test match. It may get better yet. Two wonderful sides, both desperate to be No 1 in the world rankings, have spent three days in the final contest of the series knocking spots off each other.

In the wake of that other super-lative sporting festival across town, it has been a veritable bonus. England finished the third day with three wickets in the bag, trailing by 139.

There are no signs of demons in the pitch, indeed quite the reverse since it still looks angelic to bat on, but batting fourth anywhere is a tricky proposition and England will not want to chase any amount of runs against the clock.

With two days left it is still anybody's game, though the tourists need only to draw to win the series. Towards the end of another riveting day, they lost Jacques Kallis after he had shared a partnership of 81 with Hashim Amla.

Neither looked in the slightest bother and had they stayed together to the end of play, England may have suffered a recurrence of the nightmares provided by their unbroken partnership of 377 at The Oval.

Kallis became the third lbw victim of the innings with fewer than 15 minutes left and a review could not save him. Ominously for England, Amla completed his fifty in the day's last over. Steadfastly though England have performed in this match after the shambolic period of preparation which was dominated by the Pietersen Affair, they have never quite dispelled the simple suspicion, pervasive since the first match, that South Africa are the better team.

Both combatants will be drained when this match ends tomorrow. They have given their all at a rarefied level. There have been mistakes and it has not been a game marked by high scores. But no quarter has been lightly given, no advantage easily gained.

England gained a slender first- innings lead of six precious runs, which at 54 for 4 a day earlier had seemed remoter than certain individuals in their dressing room. Jonny Bairstow was the main architect of the recovery and it was a sad moment when he fell five runs short of a maiden Test century shortly before lunch.

The natural sympathy for his disappointment was leavened by reasoning that there would be plenty of centuries for him at this level to come, some of them at Lord's. But sport does not always work out like that and Bairstow and everybody else in the ground would have given much to see him get there.

It was a remarkable innings considering the circumstances in which it started, that he was the man brought in for Pietersen and that the bowling was of extremely high quality. He started the third day as he had finished the second, judging every ball strictly on merit, leaving when he could, hitting the rare bad ball. Only when he approached the landmark did things change and that was as much to do with South Africa's exemplary bowling as it was with Bairstow's approach. Throughout the match, Morne Morkel has been splendid and he gave Bairstow absolutely nothing to hit.

For 14 balls, which must have turned into half a lifetime, Bairstow left, defended or was denied in the field. Something, everyone knew, had to give and then Bairstow went across his stumps and tried to flick a ball to leg, a shot which may be seen many times in the years to come.

In his anxiety, he missed and was bowled. The applause was all for him as he made his way up the pavilion steps but it had somebody else in mind.

That left England perilously short of their opponents' total but they promised that their challenge in this match was not built on sand and proceeded to show it.

The loss of Matt Prior, playing loosely as soon as the second new ball was taken, followed by Bairstow and Stuart Broad might have left a serious deficit. But Graeme Swann, playing with rare common sense, found determinedly studious support from Jimmy Anderson and Steve Finn. England were in the game.

It was felt that the first hour of the match's third innings were important to its eventual course, but then every hour has been significant. There was little movement for England's bowlers and when there was Jimmy Anderson did what he has for most of the summer and went past the bat without touching it.

Broad (left) is off the pace. He looks slower than he was because he is slower than he was, and this has to be addressed soon.

If South Africa's bowlers have generally been the more hostile in the past month it is because they are faster. Even Steve Finn, who has been the fastest around in his time out of the team in the past year, has looked slower.

A solid start was on the verge of becoming something much more dangerous when England won two lbw appeals in three overs. Graeme Smith was ensnared by a beautiful piece of bowling from Graeme Swann a ball after hitting a rare off-side boundary. It was much straighter and Smith, attempting to sweep, was unbalanced.

Alviro Petersen, moving across his stumps, was hit on the front pad and all but walked before the appeal was done. But there had been a crucial moment two balls before when Amla had flicked a short ball down the leg side. Prior, leaping to his left, could not hold on to the catch.

England have to catch everything from now on to stay in this and then bat for their lives to win it, level the series and stay No 1.

It will be one of their greatest victories.