South Africa v England, 1st Test, Pt Elizabeth, 3rd day December 19, 2004

Honours even at St George's

South Africa 337 and 99 for 2 lead England 425 (Strauss 126, Butcher 79) by 11 runs
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details

Makhaya Ntini celebrates his 1-2-3 © Getty Images
Three wickets from Makhaya Ntini helped South Africa fight back to end the third day at Port Elizabeth on even terms. That England got a decent first-innings lead was only down to spirited resistance from the tail after South Africa restricted England to 159 for the loss of seven wickets. In the final session, Graeme Smith and AB de Villiers got South Africa's second innings off to a confident start, and by the close they led by 11 with eight wickets remaining.

England's innings was ripped apart by four wickets in 12 balls in the early afternoon just after they had overtaken South Africa's 337, as Ntini bagged three in four. He was denied a hat-trick by Matthew Hoggard after he had removed Mark Butcher for 79, the dangerous Andrew Flintoff for 35 and Geraint Jones for 2.

Butcher's confident innings was brought to an unconfident close when Ntini's innocuous delivery caught him in two minds and the impressive Thami Tsolekile took the feathered edge. Flintoff added a four before he too fell to Ntini, trying to replicate an earlier hooked six off Dale Steyn. But Flintoff came up short on the longer of the two leg-side boundaries, holing out to the perfectly-positioned Jacques Rudolph.

Matthew Hoggard takes a superb tumbling caught and bowled to dismiss AB de Villiers © Getty Images
With the bit between his teeth, Ntini's next ball surprised Geraint Jones with some steepling bounce, and an uncontrolled backfoot push was well held by a diving Boeta Dippennaar in the covers and England were reeling at 353 for 7. Next over, Andrew Hall removed Hoggard and England were facing the slenderest of first-innings leads.

But they extended it to 88 runs after tea as South Africa made hard work of taking the last two wickets. Ashley Giles proved once more that he is no batting slouch, sharing a handy stand of 36 with Simon Jones before falling to Shaun Pollock for 26 (394 for 9). Steyn thought he had wrapped up the innings one run later as Steve Harmison skied one to Ntini at deep backward square leg. But Ntini dived over the ball, and England romped along in spirited style as, try as they seemingly might, they just could not give their last wicket away.

The last pair were both nearly run out, while Jones edged over the slips and Harmison was caught by Tsolekile off Steyn, who was then no-balled for his troubles. To add insult, England scrambled a run as the keeper had thrown the ball away in misguided celebration. But, while Harmison and Jones provided amusement, they were adding a serious 31 runs before Steyn finally held a caught-and-bowled off Jones.

Smith and de Villiers set about reversing the deficit in fine style, however, rattling up 26 from six overs before Hoggard took a superb return catch to dismiss de Villiers. Jacques Rudolph entered the fray, looking to match his sturdy 93 in the first innings. But Giles, eager to exploit the cracks after Smith had extracted turn earlier, sent him back on 28 after he edged to Marcus Trescothick at first slip. Giles' turn had the batsmen in all sorts of trouble, particularly the lefthander Smith. But Smith remained unbeaten at the end of the day.

Graham Thorpe is bowled round his legs as Graeme Smith took his fourth Test wicket © Getty Images
In the morning, South Africa struck vital early blows before Butcher and Flintoff stabilised the innings. Andrew Strauss added just six to his overnight 120 before spanking Pollock to de Villiers in the covers (238 for 2). Michael Vaughan's recent good form wasn't in evidence, and Hall's first ball on target trapped him in his crease, prodding defensively at a good-length ball which took a firm edge to Smith at first slip (249 for 3).

Then Smith brought himself on against Butcher and Thorpe, and Butcher, in particular, struggled initially with the turn. The captain kept himself on, and so delayed taking the new ball: a decision vindicated when he bowled Thorpe, who was attempting an ambitious sweep, around his legs for 4.

The heat was on as England slipped to 277 for 4. Butcher was in superb form and his mounting confidence was tangible as he stroked successive boundaries off Pollock. Flintoff was more subdued, giving the occasional bad ball short shrift, as England's run rate limped to just above three an over.

But then came Ntini's spell which nipped the recovery in the bud and ensured that the fourth day began with all to play for.

Jenny Thompson is assistant editor of Cricinfo.