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

England's batsmen reap what they sow

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Andrew Strauss gave his innings away with precisely the type of smear he had avoided in Saturday's masterclass © Getty Images

England would happily have accepted a first-innings total of 425, if it had been offered to them in the immediate aftermath of their drubbing against South Africa A. But after the hard graft they had shown on Saturday afternoon, today's performance was a distinct disappointment.

From Andrew Strauss, who gave his innings away with precisely the type of smear he had avoided in yesterday's masterclass, to Andrew Flintoff, whose hoist to deep midwicket was one of those forehead-slapping moments that periodically litter his play, England's batsmen lined up to be shot down. But in the end, they reaped what they had sown, and just about balanced their books with a joyride of a last-wicket partnership that was as successfully reckless as the middle-order collapse was merely plain reckless.

There is nothing more certain to drive a fielding side to distraction than a pair of tailenders swinging away with gay abandon, and while Simon Jones and Steve Harmison were adding 31 for England's last wicket, all of the efforts that Makhaya Ntini had poured into South Africa's fightback were gurgling away like the beerkegs at Castle Corner. It was not the runs so much as the ridicule, particularly for poor Dale Steyn, who had to check his celebrations twice - once when Ntini spilled a diving take at long leg, and again when Steyn himself overstepped for a staggering 16th no-ball.

It could have been curtains for the comeback, but South Africa rallied, and by the close they had secured a slender lead for the loss of just two batsmen. It was a prospect that had seemed a world away at the start of play, and moreover the two men at the helm were the big guns of Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis. They mustered not a run between them in the first innings - it is inconceivable that they will both miss out a second time around.

It was a missed opportunity for England. With a bit more application they could have been out of sight by teatime. Instead they face the prospect of a tricky fourth-innings run-chase, although South Africa's lack of a genuine spinning option should still cost them dear, if Ashley Giles's probing late spell is anything to go by.

Mark Butcher's innings was a microcosm of his team's failings. He came into the match under the most intense scrutiny, following his double failure at Potchefstroom, but knuckled down in the early part of his innings, to lay the foundations of what had the makings of a truly formidable performance. But then, with a hundred there for the taking, he played one rash swish to the hostile Ntini, and the walls of the innings came tumbling down.

Butcher said recently that he had learned a lesson while watching England from the sidelines, that he really wanted to cash in when well set, in the manner that Robert Key had done on his return to the side at Lord's last summer. For 192 balls and four-and-a-half hours he did just that, waiting patiently for the scoring opportunities, which he put away with élan. It is little wonder he was crestfallen at the close.

England have not always taken the easy route to victory in the course of their seven-match winning streak, but one of the hallmarks of their performances has been their coolness under fire when chasing in the fourth innings. In a match that has suddenly become anyone's game, they should still be favourites with two days to go, but they have made things mighty tough for themselves.

Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo, and he will be following England's tour around South Africa.