reports from Durban
South Africa 225 England 123-5
For an hour it was all England. South Africa, their innings in tatters at 153 for 9 were ready to fall. But these are hardy folk, used to battling uncertainty and hopeless causes and their tail-enders rallied to record their side's highest partnership of the innings. Six hours later when bad light again halted play, it was England who were faltering, half their side gone for 125, and their batting shredded by the South African pace bowlers.
It was an object lesson in unstinting aggression and one England should take on board if they are ever to make the running. As has been evident for some time now, Atherton's team have become over-reliant on him, rarely making match-winning totals unless he happens to play one of his lengthy one-paced anchor roles. Without them, England do not seem to have the spine from which to hang their more flamboyant contributions and are often rendered inverterbrate as a result.
Yesterday he was out in the first over of England's innings, thick-edging a hasty jab to Andrew Hudson at fine gully, as Allan Donald finally homed in on off-stump with the final ball of a rapid over.
Four overs later he struck again, when Thorpe edged a ball slanted across him to first slip. The batsman stood his ground convinced the ball had not carried to Cullinan, who had in fact taken a finely judged catch, rightfully upheld by the square-leg umpire
With John Crawley spending most of the afternoon icing his hamstring hoping not to bat, Thorpe was promoted to fill the fated No 3 spot. He has tried it once before, without notable success. Presumably, it is his left-handedness that was behind his promotion above Hick, who had occupied the position on 33 previous occasions for England.
At this point, most of the crowd on the grassy knoll known as Castle Corner prostrated itself in Donald's direction. This was blood lust on a grand scale and their was no audible amnesty for old boy Robin Smith when he marched to the crease with the score 13 for 2.
Judging from the way he slashed his first ball high over the slips for four, Smith was mainlining pure adrenalin as 14 runs came off the first five balls he faced. Smith is a determined cove, but the huge debt he still feels he owes to those who helped him here in his youth has overburdened him with pressure. His dismissal for 34, as he edged Matthews to second slip was the stroke of a man worried by old debts.
Alec Stewart, who has not scored a Test match fifty since South Africa played England at the Oval in 1994, was next to go for 41. He was given a torrid time by all the bowlers especially Pollock and Matthews, who by limiting their bouncers this time, made them harder to predict and thus avoid.
Stewart's loose slash to Hudson in the gully gave Matthews his 50th Test wicket, though his 51st should be accredited to Jonty Rhodes, whose airborn interception of Russell's firm square cut was like a wild salmon snapping up a favourite dry fly.
As is so often the case with a team that plays most of its best cricket when coming from behind, England having found themselves in the overnight driving seat, forgot to keep the accelerator down after their bowlers again began the morning session well.
Brian McMillan, so often South Africa's saviour in the late middle-order was first to go, drawn forward by one from Peter Martin that bounced to take the edge. Jack Russell completing the dismissal with a fine tumbling catch low to his right in front of first slip.
This was the wicket England most wanted and when Jonty Rhodes, strokeless for most of the morning went soon after, lbw to Mark Ilott's second ball, the hard work seemed over. Swinging the old ball both ways, Ilott redeemed Thursday's insipid spell by removing Dave Richardson, who wafted an edge obligingly to Russell, and Craig Matthews, lbw to another inswinger in the same over.
At that stage South Africa were 153 for 9 and sporting the sort of pallor that usually results in a month's enforced quarantine. It was not a hue shared by Ilott, who finding himself on a hat-trick was pink with excitement. But if Ilott pitched full in the hope that South Africa's No 11, Allan Donald, would misjudge the swing he inadvertently began the stand that was to ruin England's day, as the ball clattered back past the him for four.
It was then that England relaxed, as they so often do when faced with unexpected supremacy. Having watched the majority of the South African batting order self-destruct, England clearly presumed the tail would follow suit, and sat back waiting for the inevitable to happen.
It did, eventually, but not until 72 precious runs had been added and the home side had been given a big lift in morale. One further boosted once it became known that Crawley had badly damaged his hamstring trying to pull up Pollock's hook off Martin.
Despite their lapse, England would clearly have settled for bowling the opposition out for 225. And with Cork not taking a wicket in the innings for the first time since his debut last summer, England's bowling selections will have appeared justified, even inspired, and few could have predicted last Wednesday night that Ilott and Martin would be sharing seven of the wickets.
With Illingworth being his usual miserly self with 3 for 39 off 29 overs, the selectors can clearly pat themselves on the back on some shrewd selections. But this is a two innings game and so far South Africa's pace appears to have given them the upper hand.