Throughout a tense, gripping contest yesterday, power was in the balance. There was nothing official about it, though, and no ICC bigwig to strut his stuff presenting the bejewelled mace that signifies what they wish to be considered as the ultimate honour in Test cricket.
But during the perpetually riveting passages of the second day in the second Investec Test it was impossible to rebuff the notion that South Africa are now the best team in the world. England resisted, how they resisted, first in a compelling opening hour in which barely a run was scored and nary a spectator moved in his seat.
Then in the evening, as South Africa's titanic attack strained every sinew – maybe too many sinews – England responded defiantly and effectively. By the end of the month the rankings may have changed to show South Africa have overtaken England at the top – but not yet, they haven't.
England are fighting to save the match rather than to win it now, but that still gives them a chance of drawing the series if they can somehow muster their forces to win the third match at Lord's. Then they will stay at No 1. When bad light and rain forced an early close, England were 48 for 0 after South Africa had made 419 all out, an imposing total on this pitch.
The day, the series, perhaps the future was enshrined in the morning session. England bowled to contain, South Africa batted to survive. The bat was constantly passed and Alviro Petersen, who advanced from 124 overnight went on to make 182, the largest of his four Test hundreds, might have been summarily dispatched on another day.
Maiden over followed maiden over, six of them in all. England might have had more men round the bat, but then that would not necessarily have induced any more edges. When the tourists were not passed they let it pass.
Petersen and Jacques Rudolph were carrying out the plan – stay in, keep England out there, every run is precious. It was utterly compelling. Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad were both on the button. The game was going nowhere yet it was going everywhere.
In the fifth over of the morning, England thought they had their man. Petersen, confounded by the swing, was given out lbw. A wicket then and the dream of keeping South Africa's total under 300 was possible again. For the second time in 11 overs, Petersen asked for the verdict to be reviewed.
He had been correct in doing so on Thursday evening and he was correct again now. The ball, according to the technology, was going over the top and missing leg, a trajectory with which it was difficult to argue.
Umpire Steve Davis, a fine official, is having a difficult match, what with the business of Steve Finn dislodging the bails in his delivery stride when bowling and the overturning of two lbw decisions. He might be Dead Ball Davis, but he is not for the moment Dead Eye Davis.
Petersen, having twice effectively given himself not out, simply regrouped. There was nothing specifically outstanding about his long occupation – it is hard to recall a memorable stroke – but the innings as a whole was both outstanding and memorable.
The son of a Port Elizabeth taxi driver, he arrived as the least revered of South Africa's batsmen, and with a duck in the first Test when his colleagues scored 637 for 2 that status was not immediately enhanced. But he has his compatriots' pragmatism, developed over 20 years of Test cricket in which South Africa have had dizzying moments but have continually under-achieved when it has mattered.
Petersen and Rudolph had taken their partnership to 59 – the first runs of the day came off the 39th ball and a little flurry followed – when the left-hander was out in circumstances that may have been a trifle embarrassing for England.
Having dropped Graeme Swann for the match, entrusted their fortunes to an all-seam attack and fielded on winning the toss, it was almost certainly not their intention for Kevin Pietersen to be purveying his off-spin just before lunch on the second day. But Andrew Strauss had virtually no choice but to let him have a go and with his second ball he ripped one past Rudolph's outside edge as he propped forward.
In a trice, Matt Prior removed the bails and, although it did not look conclusive on replay, the third umpire sent Rudolph packing. England had their breakthrough but their opponents had long since declared their policy and were not of a mind to amend it. They continued to grind it out.
Then, after nearly nine hours, Petersen was out, edging Broad behind. He did not walk and it was somehow fitting that it had to go to review before it was upheld. Had it not been, Broad, who did not bother to appeal, would surely have blown a gasket.
Still they hung around, though, and still England could not find the answers. How often on their ascent to the top have their own late-order runs annoyed the opposition. The ninth- wicket stand between J-P Duminy and Morne Morkel was especially pesky and it was perfectly in order to wonder what Swann's off-spin might have done against these left-handers.
After 139.2 overs, at least 50 more than England would have preferred after inserting, the innings was done. Alastair Cook finished it with a smart second-slip catch but the chance that mattered had been some 12 hours earlier when he shelled Petersen on 29.
There was an odd lack of expectation when Strauss and Cook went out to bat, which was unfair considering their records. But South Africa were awry with the new ball and England's opening pair were dogged. Strauss overtook Len Hutton in Test runs scored, which may not have been fully appreciated by a full house on Hutton's home ground. But they would have been glad indeed that England were still intact, ready to surrender nothing just yet.
Timeline: How the second day unfolded at Headingley
11.20am Review South Africa 262-5
James Anderson slams a delivery into Alviro Petersen's pads and umpire Steve Davis raises his finger. The review shows that the ball was going over the top.
12.15pm South Africa 300-5
Petersen hits a single into the leg side off Tim Bresnan to pass 150 for the second time in Test cricket as the tourists bring up the 300.
12.42pm Wicket South Africa 318-6
Kevin Pietersen turns the ball past Jacques Rudolph's outside edge and Matt Prior takes the bails off. It goes to the TV umpire and is given out.
2.08pm Wicket South Africa 353-7
England finally get their man as Petersen nicks one through to Prior. It's initially given not out by umpire Rod Tucker but a review shows a clear edge.
2.35pm Wicket South Africa 375-8
Vernon Philander top edges a short ball from Steve Finn in the air and it's comfortably taken by Bresnan at deep square leg.
2.58pm South Africa 402-8
Morne Morkel ominously brings up the 400 for South Africa by pulling a short ball from Finn to the boundary. England need to tie this up quickly.
3.19pm Wicket South Africa 414-9
After further frustrating the England bowlers, Morkel plays an uppish drive off Broad which is snared by Cook at mid-off. England are hopeful of a couple of hours with the bat.
3.33pm Wicket South Africa 419 all out
England eventually wrap things up as No 11 Imran Tahir edges a good delivery from Anderson through to Cook.
5.17pm England 48-0
Bad light stops England's reply early. The hosts are relieved as the ball had started to nip about and the scoring rate had slowed, with one run coming from five overs.