'A hundred begging to be taken' says Butcher
The moods of Mark Butcher and Graeme Smith told a tale of two teams as they addressed the media at the end of the third day's play at Port Elizabeth. Butcher could not hide his disappointment, while Smith was a contented captain.
Mark Butcher was a disappointed man at the close of the third day's play at Port Elizabeth, after watching his side squander a considerable overnight advantage to leave the first Test hanging delicately in the balance. By the close, South Africa were effectively 11 for 2 with two intriguing days' play in prospect.
Butcher's own contribution was a gutsy 79, but his dismissal precipitated a dramatic middle-order collapse, as four wickets tumbled for 12 runs in 15 balls. "I'm disappointed not to have got more," he admitted at the close. "There was a hundred begging to be taken out there, not just from my point of view, but from the team's as well, because we wanted to still be batting going into tomorrow. My concentration had been really good, but all it takes is one ball and then you're out."
Butcher had not played for England since the third Test against New Zealand in June, and after his double failure in the warm-up match at Potchefstroom, he admitted he had been more nervous going into this game than ever before - hence the attritional approach to his innings. "I felt I needed to get in," he explained. "If I'd got out swishing then everyone would have been on my back about it. I took the get-myself-in route."
Ultimately, he took the get-myself-out route as well, as he inside-edged a lifter from Ntini, to cue the collapse. But he remained optimistic that England could dig themselves out of trouble, on the evidence of the cricket they have played over the past year. "Prior to the last 12 months, you'd have to say our main chance of victory had gone," he said. "But my only regret is that we could have made it easier for ourselves. Instead it's more interesting for everyone else."
"Without a doubt we've missed the boat, but the wicket shouldn't be terrible to bat on - it's keeping a bit low but there's no sign of any balls doing the reverse and leaping at us. History suggests that anything about 300 or 320 will be difficult to chase . but not impossible."
Graeme Smith, by contrast, was a contented captain at the close, despite a harum-scarum half-hour at the end of England's innings, when Simon Jones and Steve Harmison gave his fielders and bowlers the run-around. "The temper was working up inside me," he admitted, "but we did so well in the day that I've had taken that position at the start of play. It's always a bit chaotic when tailenders are batting. Normal things just don't happen.
"It's certainly a lot more interesting than last night," added Smith. "We didn't bowl well yesterday, so it was important to use the new ball well, and those two early wickets with the old ball were crucial. I was impressed with the way the guys came back today."
One of those early wickets was taken by Smith himself - his fourth in Tests. He bowled Graham Thorpe round his legs for 4 with his part-time offbreaks, and could well have a major role to play in the fourth innings. "It's taking a bit of turn," agreed Smith, "and they've got a lot of left-handers, so my role could be more important than at the start of Test. I was very excited to dismiss Thorpe - every Test wicket I take is a huge bonus."
The star of South Africa's day, however, was Makhaya Ntini, who grabbed three wickets in four balls to throw the game wide open. "Makhaya bowled superbly," said Smith. "England were putting together a decent partnership and both batsmen looked comfortable, but he got us on a roll and it was great to see the effort he put in."
"Any run-chase over 200 will be tough," warned Smith, adding that his overnight partnership with Jacques Kallis would be the clincher of the innings. "We had our tough day up front, but England's will come on the last day. It is crucial that we focus and work hard tomorrow, because we mustn't let them back in the door."
Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo. He will be following the England team throughout the Test series in South Africa.