England's chances of avoiding defeat against South Africa in the first Test rest this morning in the unreliable hands of their tail-end batsmen following the dismissal of Andrew Flintoff to the penultimate ball of an elongated fourth day's play. With only three wickets remaining England still require a further 21 runs to avoid the follow-on against a relentless South African team whose efforts in this match deserve to be rewarded with a victory.
On a pitch that is becoming increasingly difficult to bat on, the chances of Nasser Hussain's side coming out of this game with a draw would increase considerably should England reach their goal. If, however, Ashley Giles, Darren Gough, Stephen Harmison and James Anderson fail to score the required runs, they are in for a nervous, stressful last day.
That England are not out of this game already is mainly due to the welcome return to form of their leading batsman, Michael Vaughan. On and off the field this has not been a good week for the captain Hussain and nobody would have been happier than him to see Vaughan back to his brilliant best. By scoring a majestic 156 he has, in the short term, helped take some heat off the man he is destined to replace.
In reply to South Africa's mammoth first-innings score of 594 for 5 declared, England, through Vaughan, spent most of the day moving purposefully towards the 395 they needed. After watching the Yorkshire opener score 1,533 Test runs at an average of 76.65 against the world's leading bowlers during a wonderful nine-month period, the quality of Vaughan's batting has become something England expect. To find a player of his undoubted class looking out of touch in the early part of this season was a surprise.
An innings of 83 here against South Africa during the one-day series suggested Vaughan was moving in the right direction but yesterday's century proved he was back to his best. During a quiet start against the excellent Shaun Pollock - who highlighted that there is something in this pitch for a bowler who hits the seam and pitches the ball in the right area - he had a slice of luck on 12 when Herschelle Gibbs failed to scoop up a sharp chance low to his left at second slip. This seemed to sting Vaughan into action and it was not long before his feet were in perfect working order.
Back came the glorious off-drives which pierce the field, the effortless clips off his legs that scorch the grass and, most importantly, the front-foot pull to a ball pitched just short of a length on off stump. Like Gibbs on Thursday, it was the perfect execution of this shot that stated he was in charge. The tourists' fastest bowler, Makhaya Ntini, was made to feel the full force of this statement when Vaughan, on 55, clipped him flat and hard over midwicket for six.
England began the day still requiring 370 runs to avoid the follow-on. Having spent most of Saturday watching Graeme Smith, the opposition captain, score a magnificent 277 - the highest score in Test cricket by a South African - Vaughan and his opening partner Marcus Trescothick knew the importance of making a good start.
Batting with a fractured finger, Trescothick was the more positive of the two, owing to the fact he did not face a ball from Pollock in his opening burst. The first delivery he faced from the Pavilion End concluded his innings, a Ntini yorker ripping through his defence. With the exception of the last over before lunch - from the left-arm spinner Robin Peterson - which Vaughan took for 14, England's progress continued to be slow.
Despite losing Mark Butcher and his captain, to two lbw decisions that may not have been given on a different day, Vaughan raised the tempo during the two-and-a-half-hour middle session. Making the most of wayward fast bowling from Dewald Pretorius and uninspiring spin from Peterson, England's one-day leader raced towards his ninth Test hundred and the eighth in his last 24 Test innings.
In his Yorkshire team-mate Anthony McGrath, he found a doughty partner. Yorkshire's finest put on 89 before McGrath played a horrible shot at a Pretorius bouncer and was caught by Jacques Rudolph diving forward at third slip.
With England on 222 for 4, needing 173 to avoid the follow-on, Alec Stewart received the first of a possible 10 ovations before his retirement at the end of the series. Twiddling his bat, touching the back of his helmet and scratching the ground as he has for 14 years, the veteran struck the ball as sweetly as ever before bottom-edging a pull shot on to his left knee. The 40-year-old used the services of a runner to collect his last 15 runs.
A cruel man might say that Stewart's dismissal, bowled by a superb Pretorius yorker, resembled someone tripping over his Zimmer frame, but I would not be that mean. For a man who takes great pride in his appearance, he would not have enjoyed finding himself flat on his face with his castle shattered.
When Vaughan's 417-minute vigil ended with an edged drive off the aggressive Pretorius, England were six wickets down and still 84 short of the follow-on target. Showing little regard for the tenseness of the situation, Flintoff batted in the positive manner that brought him success in the NatWest Series. But it is Giles who will have to take the bulk of the responsibility at 10.45 this morning.
Fourth day; South Africa won toss
SOUTH AFRICA - First innings (Friday: 398 for 1)
G C Smith c Anderson b Giles 277
G Kirsten c Stewart b Giles 44
H H Dippenaar c Butcher b Gough 22
J A Rudolph c Gough b Harmison 10
M V Boucher not out 15
S M Pollock not out 24
Extras (b8, lb11, nb4) 23
Total (for 5 dec, 585 min, 145 overs) 594
Fall (cont): 2-438 (Kirsten), 3-514 (Dippenaar), 4-552 (Rudolph), 5-557 (Smith).
Did not bat: R J Peterson, D Pretorius, M Ntini, C M Willoughby.
Bowling: Anderson 16-2-92-0 (nb1) (6-1-26-0, 2-0-19-0, 2-0-17-0, 6-1-30-0); Gough 25-6-88-1 (nb2) (4-3-6-0, 2-0-9-0, 4-1-19-0, 3-0-24-0, 1-0-6-0, 3-1-4-0, 8-1-20-1); Flintoff 25-6-97-0 (nb1) (7-3-18-0, 4-1-17-0, 3-0-17-0, 2-0-15-0, 2-0-10-0, 4-2-14-0, 3-0-6-0); Harmison 27-2-104-1 (7-1-17-0, 3-0-18-0, 6-1-30-0, 2-0-4-0, 5-0-23-0, 4-0-12-1); Giles 42-2-153-2 (1-0-1-0, 6-1-28-0, 3-0-13-0, 9-0-24-0, 1-0-1-0, 22-1-86-2); Butcher 2-0-15-0 (one spell); Vaughan 8-0-26-1 (one spell).
Progress: Third day: 400: 375 min, 93.5 overs. 450: 431 min, 106.1 overs. 500: 474 min, 117.1 overs. Lunch: 506-2 (Smith 246, Dippenaar 20) 120 overs. 550: 530 min, 131.1 overs. Declaration at 3.05pm.
Smith 50: 155 min, 115 balls, 9 fours. 100: 225 min, 161 balls, 16 fours. 150: 322 min, 231 balls, 21 fours. 200: 414 min, 285 balls, 27 fours. 250: 492 min, 346 balls, 32 fours.
ENGLAND - First innings
M E Trescothick b Ntini 31
M P Vaughan c Boucher b Pretorius 156
M A Butcher lbw b Ntini 13
N Hussain lbw b Pollock 1
A McGrath c Rudolph b Pretorius 34
A J Stewart b Pretorius 38
A Flintoff lbw b Pretorius 40
A F Giles not out 9
Extras (b19, lb6, w11, nb16) 52
Total (for 7, 492 min, 112.5 overs) 374
Fall: 1-66 (Trescothick), 2-132 (Butcher), 3-133 (Hussain), 4-222 (McGrath), 5-306 (Vaughan), 6-311 (Stewart), 7-374 (Flintoff).
To bat: D Gough, J M Anderson, S J Harmison.
Bowling: Pollock 24-10-44-1 (nb7, w1) (10-5-18-0, 7-1-19-1, 7-4-7-0); Ntini 23-6-95-2 (nb1) (4-1-17-0, 6-3-15-1, 1-0-5-0, 5-1-22-1, 4-1-14-0, 3-0-22-0); Willoughby 20-7-46-0 (w2) (4-2-4-0, 2-0-2-0, 6-2-25-0, 2-2-0-0, 6-1-15-0); Pretorius 23.5-1-107-4 (nb8, w8) (8-0-29-0, 2-0-19-0, 7-0-32-1, 5-1-20-2, 1.5-0-7-1); Peterson 22-9-57-0 (1-0-14-0, 15-4-39-0, 6-5-4-0).
Progress: Third day: Tea: 25-0 (Trescothick 17, Vaughan 4) 8 overs. Fourth day: 50: 109 min, 23.1 overs. 100: 163 min, 35.3 overs. Lunch: 109-1 (Vaughan 49, Butcher 9) 36 overs. 150: 220 min, 47.2 overs. 200: 274 min, 60.1 overs. Tea: 245-4 (Vaughan 131, Stewart 9) 71 overs. 250: 324 min, 73.4 overs. New ball: taken after 80 overs at 268-4. 300: 409 min, 93.1 overs. 350: 471 min, 106.5 overs.
Vaughan 50: 169 min, 108 balls, 9 fours. 100: 263 min, 169 balls, 15 fours, 1 six. 150: 382 min, 267 balls, 23 fours, 1 six.
Umpires: D J Harper (Aus) and S Venkataraghavan (India).