Refusing to die
In the end, it was an anticlimax, but never again let it be said that a drawn Test match is boring. This was the game that simply refused to die. It should never have lasted beyond the halfway mark, and even to reach the fourth afternoon was stretching credulity, but instead England and South Africa were still slugging it out as the shadows lengthened and the light retreated to the margins.
When play was suspended, England's players sat impatiently on the outfield, while the South African batsmen scampered for the dressing-room, which told its own tale of which team had taken the ascendancy. But, in a match that had defied the script from the very moment that England first fluffed their lines on the opening morning, nothing whatsoever could have been ruled out.
The final act paid testament to that. Two terrifying new-ball deliveries from Steve Harmison were immediately followed by a dead-eyed run-out from Simon Jones - at which point South Africa's devoted cricket fans might have had flashbacks to the 1999 World Cup - but into the breach strode the never-say-die Makhaya Ntini, who brought down the curtain with four defiant fours from consecutive deliveries. Had South Africa's top order whittled the requirement down by another 50 runs, things could have got very interesting indeed.
Instead England were denied a pop at a glorious ninth victory in a row, but by way of consolation, they reached the end of 2004 with an outstanding record in Tests that reads: played 13, won 11, drawn 2. And that other draw wasn't exactly a dead-beat match either - Brian Lara's 400 not out saw to that. The way they are approaching the game at present, England are turning every session of every match into compulsive viewing, and the world of cricket should be immensely grateful.
In truth, England never quite hit top gear today - at least, not until Harmison's brutal late intervention, which left Shaun Pollock's fingers in blocks of ice and seemed destined to be the decisive twist in a match of countless to-ings and fro-ings. Up until that point, they had approached the day like a deep-sea fisherman in pursuit of a marlin. With a lead of 378 they cast their line, South Africa took the bait, and so began a day-long battle of wills.
England were never likely to be dragged overboard (although while Pollock and the nerveless 20-year-old AB de Villiers were chugging along against the old ball, that could not be entirely ruled out). But on a largely blameless pitch, there was always the chance that South Africa would wriggle off the hook. Once the shine had gone from the old ball, England bowled a full length, invited the drive, and waited for the mistakes, and consequently South Africa enjoyed several moments in the ascendancy, not least while Jacques Rudolph and Martin van Jaarsveld were in harness.
Until the late arrival of the rainclouds, South Africa had not had a huge amount of luck in this Test. Graham Thorpe could hardly have complained if he had fallen lbw early yesterday, but Rudolph certainly had plenty to gripe about when he was given out caught at short leg off his forearm. That dismissal triggered a middle-order rupture of three wickets in 20 balls, and it seemed that this time, surely, the momentum had swung inexorably in England's favour.
But then we had made that assumption when Herschelle Gibbs fell midway through the morning session, and again when Jacques Kallis nibbled at Harmison on the stroke of lunch. But how could anything of the sort have been considered while Kallis was clobbering South Africa to a first-innings lead of 193? All through this game, the glorious uncertainty of Test cricket has been writ large across the performances of both sets of players. It may have been anticlimactic, but there could have been no more appropriate result than a draw with honours even.
Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo. He will be following the England team throughout the Test series in South Africa.