South Africa v England, 4th Test, Johannesburg, 3rd day January 15, 2005

Exhaustion fights two-fingered resilience

Herschelle Gibbs drives on the way to his 14th Test hundred © Getty Images
The third day at the Wanderers was no place for faint hearts. It was a bruising, pulsating day of Test cricket, set in motion by a bold overnight declaration from Michael Vaughan, sustained by Matthew Hoggard's indefatigable bowling, but ultimately dominated by the flashing blade of Herschelle Gibbs. At the midway point of the afternoon session, England were the only conceivable victors, but thanks to Gibbs's resolute return to form and a two-fingered salute of an innings from Mark Boucher, South Africa were within sight of a stunning turnaround by the close of play.

Boucher's late dismissal ensured that England finished the day with honours even, although the sight of Geraint Jones dropping Gibbs off the penultimate ball of the day, moments after receiving treatment for a painful blow on the thumb, ensured they were back on their chin-straps by the close. At this rate, it is more likely to be English exhaustion, rather than any excellence on their part, that will provide the decisive twist to this match. Five Tests in six weeks was always going to be a tough ask, but by putting their faith in a largely unchanged team, England have created a rod for their own backs.

The ominous mid-afternoon sight of Steve Harmison pulling up in his follow-through and limping from the field was compounded by the dislocated thumb that Ashley Giles sustained while salvaging a very good catch in the gully, and it remains to be seen whether Andrew Flintoff's dodgy ribs will survive the extra workload that he manfully accepted in their absences. But as the second new ball came and went with barely a whimper in the late evening light, so too did England's best-laid plans.

They had been brilliantly laid as well. In hindsight, it could be argued that Vaughan's decision to declare overnight was a gamble too far, but at the time there could be no quibbling with his decision. Having witnessed for himself - both yesterday and five years ago - what devastation the new ball could wreak under Johannesburg's dense cloud cover, Vaughan chose to allow his spearheads, in particular the wayward Harmison, every conceivable assistance, and quite rightly so.

Hoggard, as we have come to expect this series, was probing from the word go, but the trouble, as ever, was coming from the opposite end of the ground. Once again, Harmison was woefully wide of the mark, consistently banging the ball in a yard too short, and by the time the shine had gone, so too had the cloud cover. Instead the batting of Gibbs, with the sun on his back, began to assume command on a glorious afternoon that attracted an expectant 20,000 crowd. Sad as it is to relate, Harmison's confidence is so shot that if he does not bowl another ball on this tour, it might not be the worst news, either for England's short-term series prospects, or their long-term Ashes hopes.

Jacques Kallis plays on for 33 © AFP
Not for the first time in this intriguing battle of wills, however, the course of the day's play veered even further from the straight and narrow. No sooner had the skies cleared than Hoggard's perseverence secured him the wicket of Graeme Smith, for the fourth Test in a row this series, and when he later followed up with the massive scalp of Jacques Kallis, England really seemed to have reassumed command.

Kallis's big mistake was to emerge from the defensive cocoon that has served him and his team so well this series. There was, however, method to his relative madness, for he took it upon himself to destroy Harmison, and immediately pulled him for six as he returned to the attack. Had this been the Cape Town Test, however, Kallis would never in a month of maidens have played the back-foot forcing stroke that eventually caused his downfall, and in his absence, South Africa's middle-order once again looked light on resilience.

Resilience, however, could have been Boucher's middle name. There can have been few more predictable events than his comeback half-century, and, with an ally in whom he could trust, it was time for Gibbs to break his shackles. In the run-in to this Test, there had been all manner of rumours flying around about Gibbs - he was to be dropped, according to some reports, he was coming in at No. 6 according to others. But in the end, the selectors stuck to what they knew best, and so did Gibbs, who responded to the intrigue with an instinctive and irrefutably classy innings. It has ensured yet more suspense in an unbelievably fascinating series.

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