The second day of England's opening four-day fixture in Zimbabwe ended with Mashonaland 82 runs ahead on 279 for 9, with Croft's last spell of the day bringing him 4 for 5 in six overs and Tufnell also finishing with four wickets.
An hour after tea, however, after a long slog under a fierce sun at the Harare Sports Club, things looked totally different with Mashonaland on 258 for 3. But Tufnell then held one up just enough to induce a return catch from Houghton and England's toil was about to bring reward.
Six wickets fell in the space of nine overs, Croft ending the day with figures of 4 for 65 to go with his 80 not out in England's first innings 197.
During the first 50 minutes of play, Croft and Tufnell took their last- wicket stand to 52 after England had resumed on 175 for 9 after Tuesday's embarrassing first day.
Darren Gough then took an early wicket in an impressive new-ball burst before lunch, but during a long afternoon England needed the good fortune of two debatable umpiring decisions just to keep themselves afloat.
Tufnell, who has 4 for 77 overall so far, was the beneficiary of both incidents. First the opener Grant Flower was adjudged lbw for 28 as he swept with his front pad a long way down the pitch and then the Middlesex slow left-armer won an appeal for a catch at slip by Nasser Hussain, after Alistair Campbell had seemed to miss a drive and the ball had deflected off the pads of the wicketkeeper Alec Stewart.
Campbell, the Mashonaland and Zimbabwe captain, had made 55 from 76 balls and the left-hander walked off in obvious disgust at the decision. Later, however, he said he accepted the umpire's decision even though he was astonished at being given out.
However, England still seemed to be losing control of the match as Houghton was joined by Craig Wishart in a fourth-wicket partnership which eventually realised 116. The 39-year-old Houghton was at times quite majestic, and he reached both his 50 and his century with swept sixes off Tufnell.
Houghton averages 48 from his 18 Tests and it was easy to see why yesterday as he struck 14 boundaries in his 141-ball innings. But then came England's recovery, with Croft, the Glamorgan all-rounder, adding to his already fast-growing reputation with a spell which may yet be a turning point on a pitch which is expected to take more and more spin as it wears.
"All you need in cricket is one wicket and things can change," David Lloyd, the England coach, said after the day's play. "We stuck at it and after a bit of an onslaught both spinners steadied themselves and they then got their reward."
England won toss
ENGLAND - First Innings
(Overnight: 175 for 9)
R D B Croft not out 80
P C R Tufnell c D J R Campbell b Kirtley 6
Extras (lb6 w3 nb7) 16
Total (75.1 overs) 197
Fall: 1-3 2-4 3-7 4-27 5-63 6-88 7-94 8-125 9-145.
Bowling: Kirtley 25.1-4-53-5; B C Strang 19-2-52-1; Brent 8-1-20-1; P A Strang 16-5-30-0; Matambanadzo 6-0-34-1; Flower 1-0-2-0.
MASHONALAND - First Innings
G W Flower lbw b Tufnell 28
S V Carlisle c and b Gough 9
*A D R Campbell c Hussain b Tufnell 55
D L Houghton c and b Tufnell 110
C B Wishart c Crawley b Croft 45
P A Strang c Crawley b Croft 6
D J R Campbell c Hussain b Croft 8
G B Brent lbw b Croft 1
B C Strang lbw b Tufnell 0
D Matambanadzo not out 2
R J Kirtley not out 2
Extras (lb6 nb7) 13
Total (for 9, 83 overs) 279
Fall: 1-22 2-80 3-142 4-258 5-266 6-267 7-274 8-275 9-275.
Bowling: Mullally 12-2-42-0; Gough 16-3-43-1; Caddick 10-2-46-0; Tufnell 24-6-77-4; Croft 21-3-65-4.
Umpires: K Kanjee and D Kalan.Reuse content