A classic in the making
"I hope it doesn't get any flatter," was Jacques Kallis's plaintive appeal to the pitch gods last night, after his wonderful 162 had hoisted South Africa from a position of promise to one of outright supremacy at the close of the second day's play. And as if to answer his prayers, Durban was swiftly deluged by a massive thunderstorm. When England resumed their second innings this morning, still 163 runs adrift and against a newish ball, it was from a position of some undoubted peril.
But from the umpteenth time in a fascinating match, the momentum has swung emphatically in the opposite direction. Kingsmead has already provided four seasons in one pitch, from the green meanie that England faced up to on the first morning, via the docile puppy-dog of today's post-lunch session, to the viper's nest that had Mark Butcher flinching and fencing in the gathering gloom this evening. And a fifth version may yet be in store if England can lift their second innings from the merely excellent to the stratospheric, and set South Africa a testing fifth-day target.
Five days? After England had been bundled out for 139 and South Africa were 116 for 6 in reply, this match looked destined for a three-day finish - and an epic one at that. Now, however, it must surely go down to the wire and, judging by the calculated inevitability with which Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Strauss went about their business, protecting that unbeaten record is no longer the primary objective. With two days to go of an astonishingly far-advanced Test match, victory is back on England's agenda.
It is remarkable to recall that Trescothick and Strauss's opening alliance, which has now contributed 1124 runs in nine matches, might never have been launched had it not been for the freak knee injury that Michael Vaughan suffered in the nets at Lord's back in May, ahead of the first Test against New Zealand. But since Strauss was handed that opportunity, he has not looked back and, more importantly, he has become a focal point for his team-mates as he streaks off into the distance. Even during an unusually fretful first innings, he was England's top-scorer (albeit with a meagre 25), and at the second time of asking, his phlegmatic assurance has rubbed off on his partner.
Strauss and Trescothick added 152 at Port Elizabeth but, even allowing for all South Africa's no-balls, Trescothick's contribution was a mere 47, which told its own story of a man battling his way back to form. Today, however, he was back to his free-flowing self, punching through the offside with understated panache, and allowing himself the freedom of expression that he had refused to embrace earlier on the trip. England were back to 3.5-an-over cricket - the type of batting they had been used to all summer - and it was a sight to behold.
Right from the start of play, there was an assurance about the performance that England had not yet demonstrated on this tour. In the first session alone, they added a healthy 107 runs, but that included a mere 10 in the last seven before lunch, as Jacques Kallis entered the attack for a brief foray, and England decided enough was enough for one morning. They weren't exactly in a position to toy with the attack, but they certainly played the game on their own terms throughout.
It has been one of the mild ironies of England's record-breaking year, that until today, the most notable batting record to come tumbling was one that they would rather not have encountered - namely Brian Lara's 400 not out at Antigua. At the last possible gasp of the year, however, all that has turned around, and by adding 273 for the first wicket, Strauss and Trescothick leapt into the top twenty opening stands of all time, including the top five Englishmen.
They have taken their places alongside such England legends as Hutton and Washbrook, Hobbs and Sutcliffe, and Gooch and Atherton - the last England pair to both to compile a double-century opening partnership (at Melbourne in 1990-91), and to make two hundreds in a single innings (Old Trafford 1990). And, as if in a tribute to the nature of the pitch, they overhauled the record opening stand at Kingsmead, as made by Bruce Mitchell and Pieter van der Bijl, in the Timeless Test of 1938-39.
Strauss himself has moved to within 33 runs of a notable personal landmark - 1000 runs in a mere nine Tests and 18 innings. But with two days remaining, England's only objective is to keep on batting for as long as possible. Indeed, that has been Strauss's only objective ever since he entered the team. At Port Elizabeth, he added just six runs to his overnight 120, before playing one of only two injudicious strokes all tour. He's in the form and frame of mind to set this match up for a classic.
Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo. He will be following the England team throughout the Test series in South Africa.