Vaughan squanders opportunity to put South Africa on the ropes

<preform>South Africa 337 &amp; 99-2<BR> England 425</preform>
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The Independent Online

England wasted a golden opportunity to take a stranglehold on the first Test against South Africa yesterday, while Australia, the team Michael Vaughan's side want to emulate, gave another object lesson in how to ruthlessly dispose of an opponent.

England wasted a golden opportunity to take a stranglehold on the first Test against South Africa yesterday, while Australia, the team Michael Vaughan's side want to emulate, gave another object lesson in how to ruthlessly dispose of an opponent.

Before England's players left the team hotel in the morning they would have noticed that the world champions had defeated Pakistan by the small matter of 491 runs in Perth. Few would have predicted a victory of this size on the first day of that Test match, when Australia had been reduced to 78 for 5. But the ability of Ricky Ponting's side to recover from such a perilous position, and then saunter to victory, highlighted how much England will need to improve if they wish to regain the Ashes this coming summer.

England's generosity has not ruled them out of this match, and they are still marginal favourites to take a 1-0 lead in the five-match series. But Vaughan's side should not have been bowled out for 425 in their first innings, a total which gave them a lead of just 88 runs.

South Africa, on 99 for 2, had turned this into an 11-run deficit by the close of play, putting the match in the balance and making this morning's session paramount.

The Proteas, with Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis - their two best batsmen - at the crease, will be hoping to extend this lead to over 250 during the course of the fourth day. This would put them in a strong position. Australia, who scored 271 for 8 here in 1996/97, are the only side to have chased a fourth-innings score of more than 250 successfully at this ground.

But England, should they take a couple of early wickets in the first hour, would be hoping to chase around 150, a feat achieved on five occasions.

Matthew Hoggard claimed the first wicket but, on a pitch that is beginning to take spin, Ashley Giles looks the likeliest matchwinner. The left-arm spinner took the important wicket of Jacques Rudolph and he is set to have a lengthy bowl today.

These are circumstances England have become accustomed to in the last 10 months. On several occasions a match has been in the balance after three days but then a member of the team has stepped forward and produced something special. And this is the principal reason why Vaughan's side have won 10 of their last 11 Test matches.

England started the third day only 110 runs behind South Africa's first-innings total of 337. But with nine wickets in hand they had a platform from which they could and should have gone on to control this Test match.

Andrew Strauss was the principal reason for England's dominant position. The opener posted his third Test century, with the most assertive innings of his eight-match career. The left-hander made the most of wayward South African bowlers who continued to feed the cut and pull, his two strongest strokes.

This hundred - following centuries against New Zealand and West Indies at Lord's - means that Strauss has now reached three figures in his maiden innings against three consecutive teams. It also made him the first England batsman since Kumar Shri Ranjitsinhji in 1897 to score a century in his first innings at home and on tour.

But the former Middlesex captain gave South Africa the start they sought when he carelessly cut Shaun Pollock to cover point in the fourth over of the day. It would be harsh to be too critical of Strauss, but it was just the tonic that Smith's side needed.

Vaughan looked in confident mood. The England captain glanced Pollock for four and then cut Andrew Hall for six over backward point. But this proved to be his final contribution, as three balls later he edged a catch to his opposite number at first slip.

Graham Thorpe looked horribly out of touch during his 41-minute stay at the wicket. The Surrey left-hander nudged and squirted his way to just four before he was bowled behind his legs as he attempted to sweep the gentle off-spin of Smith.

With the second new ball available, and England on 267 for four, the match was now entering a crucial stage. South Africa would have feared conceding a considerable deficit when they arrived at St George's Park, but here they were with an outside chance of claiming a first-innings lead.

While England frittered away the work of Strauss, Mark Butcher watched on from the other end. The Surrey captain, like the majority of England's batsmen, had turned up for this Test desperately short of match practice, but he followed the example set by Marcus Trescothick on Saturday and grafted until his touch returned.

For most of the morning Butcher struggled to find a partner, but he eventually got one in Andrew Flintoff. The Lancashire all-rounder was not at his destructive best, but he still managed to hit one six and four boundaries during his innings of 35.

Butcher dominated their partnership and he brought up his half-century with a calypso back-foot drive through the covers before striking the miserly Pollock for consecutive fours.

Butcher is becoming adept at scoring runs in the first Test of a major overseas series, despite going into the match in dreadful form. His record does not quite match that of Strauss, but this was the fourth time in a row he has achieved this feat. But having done the hard work, and taken England nine runs ahead of their opponents, Butcher threw his wicket away.

The 32-year-old started playing too many aggressive shots and it surprised few, in another disappointing crowd, when he eventually edged a Makhaya Ntini short ball through to the wicketkeeper, Thami Tsolekile. Flintoff soon followed when he nonchalantly chipped Ntini to deep square-leg, and Geraint Jones fell to the very next delivery when a leading edge was well caught at cover. Hoggard survived the hat-trick ball, but 346 for four soon became 358 for eight when he edged another catch to Tsolekile behind the stumps.

Giles, Simon Jones and Stephen Harmison made the most of shoddy South African fielding in a comical hour of cricket. All three should have been caught before they came close to their final scores. The 67 runs they added, along with the 35 South Africa's bowlers gave away in no-balls, could yet prove crucial.