Victory hopes recede further for England as rain halts play against South Africa

 

Hopes of an improbable series-levelling England victory were ever more remote after South African resistance and bad weather halted home progress at Headingley.

England could turn their 351 for five into only 425 all out - despite the best efforts of Matt Prior (68) - and then there was time between the storms for only 17 fruitless overs against openers Graeme Smith and Jacques Rudolph on day four of the second Investec Test.

Twice in less than five hours, downpours deposited lakes on the outfield, and South Africa closed on the safety of 39 for none, with a lead of 33.

The window of opportunity was already narrow at the start of play for England to properly consolidate Saturday's Kevin Pietersen-inspired fightback, with bat and then ball.

Those chances receded almost immediately when they lost their centurion to just the second ball of the day, without addition to his overnight 149.

Pietersen pushed forward in defence but missed and was lbw to Morne Morkel - revenge for the fast bowler after the mauling he took from England's number four last night.

Prior continued the counter-attack nonetheless with a Pietersen-style rush of boundaries, four among 23 runs off 13 deliveries.

But Tim Bresnan and Stuart Broad could add only 10 between them, respectively caught at slip off a good ball that held its line from Vernon Philander and mispulling Imran Tahir to be well held by substitute fielder Faf du Plessis.

Prior was still able to pass an important 66-ball half-century, which ensured Pietersen's very good work was not entirely squandered.

James Anderson helped the wicketkeeper poke England's noses in front, before Prior holed out sweeping at Tahir (three for 92).

Then Anderson missed an attempted slog-sweep in the same over from the leg-spinner, as Tahir followed his earlier toils by taking the last three wickets in 13 balls shortly before lunch.

England's prospects of putting South Africa's second innings under pressure were enhanced by injury niggles for key batsmen.

They meant opener Alviro Petersen (hamstring strain) and all-rounder Jacques Kallis (back spasm) could not bat in their preferred positions, having not taken the field this morning.

Smith, who hurt himself retrieving a three last night, was fit to bat - but with strapping on his sore left knee.

Rudolph was the captain's makeshift opening partner, and the left-handed pair were largely untroubled if subdued to withstand all that England's four-man pace attack could muster against them.

A surface which had begun yesterday to offer variable bounce did no such thing for Anderson, Broad, Bresnan and Steven Finn.

They passed the bat regularly, but when the edge was found - most often Rudolph's - the ball invariably went to ground long before it reached the slip cordon.

So it was that even the most optimistic of England supporters must know something extraordinary will be required tomorrow for their team to have any chance of series victory when they head to Lord's next week for the final Test.

PA

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