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

The fulcrum of South Africa's fortunes

Andrew Strauss departs as England slip © Getty Images
It seems laughable now, with England on the rocks for the second match in succession, that in the aftermath of their first Test victory at Port Elizabeth, there was talk of them going on to complete a 5-0 series whitewash. It wasn't such an absurd notion at the time, either. Firstly, they had not even drawn a match since the end of April, and momentum generates momentum. Secondly, South Africa were a hopelessly ill-balanced side with a pair of average allrounders and a wicketkeeper at No. 9. And thirdly, England had not once hit top gear in that match, but had still won at a canter.

Only one team bothered to read the warning signs, however. South Africa made all the necessary changes after Port Elizabeth, including the politically charged decision to put Thami Tsolekile back on ice, and they came at England with a frenzied fervour throughout the Durban Test, even when, on the pivotal third afternoon, it was to the detriment of their interests, as Andrew Strauss and Marcus Trescothick wiped off the deficit and put an English victory back on the agenda.

But far from being downcast at their missed opportunity, South Africa have carried on learning all throughout the series. England, meanwhile, have remained as lacklustre as they were on the opening day of their tour match at Potchefstroom, trusting in the imperious form of Andrew Strauss and the occasional flash of inspiration from his colleagues. As a team, they have forgotten what it takes to churn out big performances day in, day out, and all of a sudden they are in extreme danger of letting this series slide, just as South Africa themselves did in England in 1998.

South Africa may be a side in transition, but with Shaun Pollock and Jacques Kallis still on board, they have enough old hands around to transmit the sense of injustice that must still burn from that defeat. And today, after one thwarted attempt at vengeance, Kallis was back for a second attack. He can appear bloodless and emotionless at the crease, utterly absorbed by the art of accumulation, but no-one can argue at his effectiveness. He made a South African record of 1288 runs in 2004, and today's 149 was his eighth hundred in 14 matches. Let others play at being flashy contributors. With Kallis as the fulcrum of South Africa's fortunes, they remain a match for any side.

Even so, Kallis discovered all too soon in this series just how much rests on his shoulders. On the opening morning at Port Elizabeth, he lost sight of a Harmison full-toss and fell for a sixth-ball duck. It was an error that went a disproportionate distance towards determining the result of the match, and he has not come close to repeating it. In four subsequent innings, he has notched up the grand tally of 382 runs, and only Strauss's unique combination of talking points has kept him from the headlines.

But Kallis was rightly named Man of the Match at Durban, where his 162 was described by Michael Vaughan as the best innings ever played against his side, and that's not forgetting that modest little contribution from Brian Lara in Antigua. By that criteria, therefore, today's effort cannot fall outside the top two either, for although it was built from a stronger base than at Durban, the pattern it followed was virtually identical. In each case, South Africa reached the make-or-break juncture of their innings - 118 for 6 there, 313 for 7 here - and in each case, they surpassed it by a distance.

Kallis has in the past being labelled as a bit of a bully - the type of player who would happily score a quadruple-century against Bangladesh and claim it as his proudest achievement - but in a single over first this morning, he demonstrated his mettle once and for all. A first-ball snorter from Steve Harmison crashed into his top hand, the second put him on his backside, the third nearly decapitated him, and the fourth and fifth all but kissed the edge. It was shaping up as the most feisty welcome to the crease since Michael Holding's infamous over to Geoff Boycott at Bridgetown in 1980-81, until a scampered pair of leg byes off the final ball broke the spell.

Though Harmison's rhythm is returning in fits and starts, his are merely the most visible symptoms of England's malaise. He badly needed a wicket in that spell, and once denied, he was a far lesser threat when he returned later in the innings. By then, Kallis had found his ideal ally in Nicky Boje, who played off his partner's solidity much as Geraint Jones had with Graham Thorpe at Durban, using the uppercut to disrupt Harmison's length and chivvying South Africa from a handy position into a dominant one.

Boje's tale is an extraordinary one as well. At the beginning of the series he was diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid gland, but after one match on the sidelines, he is back in thick of the series - as a bowler, batsman, vice-captain, and not least, an inspiration. It all adds up to a combination of factors that makes England's approach to the series half-baked at best and insulting at worst, and Robert Key's predictable duck, on his first competitive outing since September, is further proof of that. All of a sudden, that untimely cloud at Durban is looking instead like a timely act of divine justice.

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