South Africa v England, 3rd Test, Cape Town, 4th day January 5, 2005

A bridge too far

MA Atherton: no prospect of a repeat of his epic unbeaten 185 at Johannesburg in 1995-96 © Getty Images
It was a given at some stage of the series. Midway through the afternoon session, the television producers got in all of a twitter about a certain MA Atherton, former England captain and opening batsman turned Sunday newspaper correspondent. The cameras found him sat self-consciously in the front row of the media centre, and the ground buzzed with the possibility of a repeat of his epic rearguard at Johannesburg in 1995-96.

Comparisons are odious, but entertaining nonetheless. On that occasion, England had been lavishly outplayed throughout the game, and a delayed declaration had left them needing to chase the small matter of 478 for victory, or more accurately, to survive for a shade over five sessions. Atherton duly scored 185 not out in more than 10 hours of attrition, and the rest passed into Test folklore.

The context was similar, at least. Here, England's requirements are fractionally stiffer - 501 for victory, or an extra eight scheduled overs for survival - but on current form and unflappability, the team of 2005 at least had the man for the Atherton role in Andrew Strauss (Johannesburg-born, spookily enough). Plus, for those who truly believe in the concept of lightning striking twice, England managed much more than 501 in their last second innings of the tour - a meagre 570 for 7 declared at Durban.

It was all bunk of course. It's not for nothing that Atherton's innings has entered the stonewaller's pantheon, and sometime tomorrow, probably after lunch, England will lose this match and square a series that last week they thought they had all but wrapped up. It is a cruel twist of fate, but one that South Africa has fully deserved for their relentless determination in this game, and their willingness to learn with every passing day of the series.

They remain a naïve side at times (although that is preferable to arrogant), and that was never better showcased than during a ludicrous first hour of the day, when Boeta Dippenaar and Jacques Kallis resumed their overnight stand in pursuit of quick runs. If that sounds like an oxymoron, then so it proved, as Dippenaar clipped his second ball to midwicket to begin a harum-scarum half-session in which five wickets fell for the addition of a meagre 38 runs.

It was something of a role reversal - accurate efforts from England's bowlers being met by comically inept batting - but in fact wickets were the last thing that England actually wanted. With Kallis dead-set on scoring his second hundred of the match, the best policy would have been to keep him in the field as long as humanly possible, just as Atherton's side, in fact, had done with Brian McMillan all those years earlier. They started in the right vein, bowling as wide as legally possible, but then ruined the effect by running him out for 66.

Shortly afterwards, the second-ball dismissal of Marcus Trescothick scotched any hopes of another 273-run opening stand, although while Strauss remained, hope sprung ephemerally, if not quite eternally. He had top-scored in England's first five innings of the series, and for a while he seemed set to join yet more rarified company in his dizzying ascent up the batting charts.

Only one man has ever achieved the feat six innings running, and seeing as that man was George Headley, otherwise known as "Atlas" for the manner in which he carried West Indies' batting in the 1930s, that's a measure of Strauss's current influence. But his tight lbw decision ended that particular prospect, and consequently England's hopes. By the close, they were teetering on the brink at 151 for 5, with Andrew Flintoff the last man out, courtesy of an absolute beauty from Shaun Pollock. Not even Graham Thorpe, a Johannesburg survivor and their modern-day man for a crisis, looks likely to salvage the situation.

Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo. He will be following England on their tour of South Africa