Openers close to perfection as England scent unlikely victory

<preform>England 139 &amp; 281-1<BR> South Africa 332</preform>
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The Independent Online

Michael Vaughan's record- breaking side have produced many outstanding displays in the last 12 months, but they may yet have saved the most remarkable performance until their final match of the year.

Michael Vaughan's record- breaking side have produced many outstanding displays in the last 12 months, but they may yet have saved the most remarkable performance until their final match of the year.

England began the third day of the second Test here in Durban on 30 for 0, still 163 runs behind South Africa's first-innings total of 332, and in real danger of losing their first Test match of 2004. Shoddy batting in their first innings had put Vaughan's side in a hazardous position and Graeme Smith's buoyant team could be forgiven for believing they were about to draw level in this five-Test series.

But by the end of another extraordinary day, Andrew Strauss and Marcus Trescothick had turned this imposing deficit into a lead of 88 with England's highest opening partnership for 44 years. During the five and three-quarter hours the pair spent at the crease 273 priceless runs were added.

Their partnership was the fifth-highest opening stand in England's history, but more importantly it has given Vaughan's side an excellent chance of extending their winning run to nine consecutive Test matches.

Strauss and Trescothick are proving to be quite a combination. The left-handers have now opened the batting for England on 18 occasions and this was the fourth time in which they have put on more than 150 runs for the first wicket. Both scored centuries yesterday, and such was their control over the South African attack that it came as a surprise when Trescothick, on 132, eventually edged the persevering Shaun Pollock through to the wicket-keeper. Strauss was dropped at third slip off the very next ball from Makhaya Ntini, but walked off Kingsmead undefeated on 132 when bad light ended play with 11 overs remaining.

These overs will not be lost. The fourth day's play will start 30 minutes early this morning and it is this factor which is bound to have encouraged Strauss and Mark Butcher to accept the umpire's offer to leave the field. Their decision will be questioned by some, but on this occasion the not-out batsmen were correct.

Butcher had survived a couple of close shouts for lbw and looked uncertain, South Africa's bowlers were enjoying the hardness of the second new ball and batting appeared far more difficult than it had at any stage of the day. It would have been foolish for England to risk losing two late wickets and finish a superb day on a low note.

South Africa had started the third day with realistic hopes of wrapping up this match quickly. A wonderful innings from Jacques Kallis had put the home side in a strong position and they knew that England's resolve could break if they took a couple of early wickets.

But Strauss and Trescothick had other ideas. They were initially watchful against Pollock and Makhaya Ntini, but once these two had finished their opening spells they took control.

Dale Steyn was smashed for 31 in three overs and Nicky Boje, South Africa's left-arm spinner, was attacked from the moment he was asked to bowl. Strauss hoicked Boje over mid-on in his first over and Trescothick slog/swept him over deep mid-wicket for six in his second.

The manner in which both openers set about Smith's bowlers highlighted how confident the current England side are. Most teams would be content to chip away at a deficit of this size, and eke out runs, but these two started taking huge bites out of it.

Such a positive approach affects both the bowlers and their captain, and South Africa immediately began setting fields designed to contain rather than get batsmen out. And this is just what happened. The slips and close-in fielders were quickly replaced by extra covers and long ons.

When Trescothick pushed Kallis for a single after lunch it took the score to 149, a total which meant this pair had now posted 1,000 runs while batting together for England. They still have a long way to go before they catch the likes of Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe - who put together 15 hundred partnerships and scored 3,249 runs at an average of 87.81 during their time opening for England - but the future looks bright. Indeed, when Trescothick was out their aggregate had risen to 1,124.

It was Trescothick who reached three figures first. During his England career the Somerset opener has looked a lesser player when on tour, but this was a majestic display and he brought up his hundred with a gorgeous straight drive for four off Makhaya Ntini. This was the left-hander's ninth Test century but only his third outside England.

Strauss joined his partner in the next over when he swept Boje for one. His innings, which continues today, will bring a fitting end to a remarkable year for the 27-year-old. The former Middlesex captain made his Test debut only because Vaughan injured his knee at the start of the summer but he is already being looked upon as England's leading batsman.

The left-hander rode his luck on a couple of occasions, but he has now scored four centuries in nine Test matches and is only 33 away from posting his 1,000th Test run. Only 11 batsmen have achieved this feat in fewer innings but the list contains many of the greats in the game - Sutcliffe, Don Bradman, Everton Weekes, Len Hutton, Frank Worrell and George Headley.

The result of this match, and possibly the series, is likely to depend on what takes place this morning. The pitch appears to be becoming easier to bat on, but if a refreshed South Africa can repeat what they did on Boxing Day these two teams may yet travel to Cape Town level at 1-1. But, should England extend their lead to over 250, one would expect New Year's Eve to be a very special occasion for Vaughan's exceptional side.

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