For a few glorious minutes the second Test sprang into fresh life. Could it be that after almost two tortuous days there was yet time for a remarkable twist? Only in Test cricket, ran the gleeful, nay sanctimonious thinking, could this happen.
And then pretty soon it settled down to what had become the norm. Having lost three wickets in 22 balls, including their captain, Hashim Amla, for a handsome and epic 201 (in the context of this match that constituted a collapse of gargantuan proportions, since before it only nine wickets had fallen in 290 overs), South Africa successfully regrouped.
In the evening, Temba Bavuma, who had to tolerate the calumny that he was in the South Africa team only for reasons of the protocol governing quotas, made a charming maiden hundred. It was the first by a black South African in Tests.
Bavuma will be challenged with much tougher conditions and circumstances, probably some time soon, but this was a properly appointed Test innings that can only be good for his team and his nation. There was an outpouring in the country of elation and relief, the undoubted sense that this was a seminal moment.
England continued to be profligate in the field, a shortcoming they need to address quickly. Blaming the ball coming out of the crowd, as if they and it were coated in something toxic, will not do. Eight clear-cut chances have been spurned.
With a day to go, it would be folly to write this off as a definite draw after South Africa declared their innings at 627 for 7, two runs behind England. Only in Test cricket and all that. But that is the way the match is headed and has been heading almost since South Africa began their necessarily cautious reply.
It is possible that they might bowl out England cheaply and thrash their way to victory and 1-1 in the series. Or it may be conceivable that England, who batted for six uneventful overs to finish on 16 for 0, can smash their way into a bigger lead, declare or be dismissed and then take 10 wickets for spit in the final session. Fairies are said to be living in tiny, ornate palaces on Table Mountain.
Only twice in Tests has a team scored more than 629 and conceded a first-innings lead, in Karachi in 2009 (the penultimate Test in Pakistan) when Sri Lanka made 644 for 7 and in Colombo in 2010 when Sri Lanka, again, made 642 for 6. So England were at least spared that, though they are now the only country to have been three times involved in a Test in which both sides made 600-plus in their first innings (Old Trafford in 1964 against Australia and Barbados against West Indies being the others).
The pitch is not wearing much and if anything it appears to be becoming slower. Bend your back and there exists still some bounce and carry, but lateral movement is in short supply.
For South Africa, Bavuma’s contribution was hugely encouraging. He assembled a captivating if not flawless innings which contained drives, pulls, flicks and sprightliness of footwork and wrists. He made 102 not out from 148 balls and if it helped that he was coming in with a decent total on the board he was never content to be anything other than assertive.
The fourth day began much as the third had ended. Amla and Faf du Plessis were not of a mind to make mistakes and accumulated runs only when it was safe. The rate of scoring, under three an over, never shifted.
When Amla was 197 he lofted Moeen Ali straight down the ground without making clean contact. There was a huge intake of breath but the ball landed safely between a scrambling mid-off and mid-on. Next ball, Amla had his third Test double hundred, one of which he had converted into a treble. That likelihood seemed to burgeon here when he was dropped for the third time in the innings soon after lunch.
He turned Stuart Broad off the face of the bat to James Taylor at short leg. It is said that they either stick or they don’t. It didn’t. Broad threw up his arms in annoyance – and he would later be fined 30 per cent of his match fee for excessive appealing – but in the same over he produced a beauty which cut back a touch off the pitch, took the inside edge of Amla’s forward push and went on to his leg stump.
Despite the reprieves he was given by England, it was a magisterial innings by South Africa’s captain, spanning 11 hours and 47 minutes – only 83 minutes fewer than his 311 not out at The Oval in 2012.
In the next over from Jimmy Anderson, Du Plessis was undone by a hint of movement and edged low to third slip, where Ben Stokes made no mistake. Broad soon struck again when Quinton de Kock flapped at a short ball which looped to square leg, where Anderson stood.
Thereafter, Bavuma was helped by Chris Morris, whose forceful batting compensated for his bowling. Bavuma reeled off three consecutive fours against Steven Finn, a charming cover drive, a robust steer through point and a muscular pull which went via midwicket. They all contained a degree of immaculate timing which is always welcome to behold.
Finn dropped Morris in his follow-through on 22, the ball jamming into his wrist. When Bavuma was 77, he edged a cutter from Broad behind but Jonny Bairstow, darting to his right, saw the ball clatter into his right glove and out again.
It would be handy for Bairstow and England if he could hold on to something shortly that was not making a beeline for the gloves. As long as England continue to select a keeper whose strongest suit is batting they will have to tolerate the occasional lapse. But Bairstow knows he has to be something a little more than a stopper and recipient of the easy-peasy.
Morris was put down off Broad by Joe Root leaping to his right at slip. South Africa, boldly, declared. There was still nothing in the pitch.