South Africa v England, 3rd Test, Cape Town, 1st day January 2, 2005

Potential versus perspiration

Ashley Giles: 'England's renaissance man of 2004' © Getty Images

Today was always going to be the big Test for England's cricketers. After 11 wins and two draws in 13 matches, they might never have wanted 2004 to finish, and when Michael Vaughan lost the toss for the third time this series, they would have been forgiven for wishing that 2005 had not yet started. Just three days ago at Durban, the entire team was busting a gut to go 2-0 up in the five-match series. After the deflation of missing out there, they now faced the prospect of another harrowing day in the field, on another flat and batsman-friendly pitch.

In the circumstances, therefore, England can largely be satisfied by their performances on the opening day at Newlands. They stuck to their task admirably all day, made vital breakthroughs at opportune moments, and though four wickets seems scant reward for their toil, they limited South Africa to less than three runs an over. A couple of quick strikes tomorrow and all of the groundwork laid by Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis may yet come to nought.

It was precisely that issue that had been on Smith's mind at the end of the second Test. Too many of his players, he pointed out, were getting set amid partnerships of 60 or 70, only to give it all away with a slack shot at an inopportune moment. For that reason, Smith will be kicking himself this evening. While he and Kallis were in harness, England were toiling on yet another slow and stodgy track, and not even Newlands's welcome breezes could compensate for the wear and tear that the attack was taking, after their punishing performance at Durban. Smith even received a huge let-off from umpire Harper to refocus his mind, but instead fell six balls later for what, up until that point, had been an excellently crafted 74.

The man who dismissed him - as if to confirm where it all went wrong in the first innings at Durban - was Ashley Giles, England's renaissance man of 2004. Giles's importance to the side is no longer questioned, but in Durban's brutal humidity, his absence with a back spasm placed an immense burden on the seamers, and Kallis in particular cashed in. Today, however, with Giles wheeling away from one end, and Andrew Flintoff and co. banging the ball in halfway down with three men out for the hook, there was never any danger of the same sort of breakout from South Africa's batsmen. It was hardly pretty, but from the moment that Herschelle Gibbs shouldered arms to Matthew Hoggard for the second match running, misjudgments singled out the South Africans, and they may yet come back to haunt them.

Nothing, however, can shake Kallis's self-belief and resolve at present. He finished 2004 with a South African record 1288 runs at an average of 80.50, and as if that was not good enough, he is already on course to better those figures. The hallmark of his innings today was his utter implacability - he did not play a false stroke all day, and as each bouncer looped up towards him, he seemed to have all the time in the world to pick his shot, roll his wrists and jog through for another single. With Hashim Amla released from the pressures of a home audience, he too showed the cooler side of his game, to justify his retention ahead of Martin van Jaarsveld.

However, after all the ebbing and flowing of the second Test, today was a day where neither side could claim outright supremacy. But with Kallis still in residence and England set for another long day in the field, the potential of South Africa's position was plain for all to see.

Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo. He will be following the England team throughout the Test series in South Africa.