England face final-day headache
Last night, Michael Vaughan was hit a painful blow in the pocket, as the ICC match referee whipped away his entire match fee for daring to speak his mind about the umpiring. And this morning, Graeme Smith made it a double whammy for the respective captains, when he became the latest victim of Ray Jennings's over-exuberant fielding drills. After copping a fearful blow to the side of his head, he spent the first half of the day in the dressing-room with concussion.
By the close, however, Smith was back in the money, and it was Vaughan who was left nursing the rather nasty headache. For the 19th day running in this gripping Test series, the match situation twisted and turned relentlessly, and with just three sessions remaining, it might just have tied itself in knots in the process. But, for all the valiance of Marcus Trescothick's tenth Test century, England's late clatter of wickets meant there was only one side with a realistic prospect of victory.
It made the irony of Vaughan's fine even more apparent than before. On the second evening of the match, he and Steve Harmison had been deprived of 13 serviceable overs, at a time when the South African bowlers were clearly on the run. The upshot was that England were forced into an early declaration, and thereby forfeited what could have proved to be a handy lead as well.
With Geraint Jones and Ashley Giles nursing injured digits, there is no guarantee that England's tail will be as resilient as it was in the first innings, and should South Africa be served up a tantalising run-chase tomorrow afternoon, England have just three serviceable seamers to call upon, despite assurances that Harmison may yet be fit to bowl.
Vaughan was under no obligation to gamble with his declaration, but it is a shame that the balance of an intriguing match might just have been tipped by officialdom. Admittedly, it was redressed somewhat this evening, when Trescothick and Jones were let off an uncomfortable hook with 15 overs of the day to go, although the conditions on this occasion were undoubtedly more gloomy than they had been back on Friday evening.
After the myriad changes of direction that have occurred in the course of this series, today's rollercoaster ride was predictably unpredictable. The second-ball wicket of Shaun Pollock was just the fillip that England needed; the third-ball reprieve of Nicky Boje was just the deflation that Jones had dreaded. It was his second drop in seven deliveries, after letting Herschelle Gibbs off the hook late last night, and he winced with pain with every ball that came his way thereafter. Chris Read, for so long a passenger on this trip, might find himself pressed into service come the start of the fifth Test.
By the time South Africa had secured a slender lead, one might have imagined that England would baton down the hatches, given their injury situation, and put safety ahead of any fancy business. But we know now not to trust this series to follow the norm. With six top-scores out of seven and 612 runs in the bank, Andrew Strauss swished loosely at Ntini and departed for a duck, but even in his absence, the swishing continued apace, as Trescothick, Robert Key and Vaughan galloped along at nearly a run a ball.
It was heady stuff, and undeniably reckless in the circumstances, but until that late collapse of three wickets in 25 balls, England were looking once again like a side with no fear of failure, and in the circumstances, that was no mean feat. But, as has been proved time and again over the past month, these two sides are so evenly matched - and such compelling viewing - precisely because they are flawed entertainers.
Neither side has the wherewithal to deliver the knock-out blow, so each will wobble like a weebl until a points verdict is delivered. And we, the spectators, will happily sway with their every move. The smart money tomorrow is on a draw with honours even, but no punter in his right mind would dare to pre-empt this final day.
Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo. He will be following England on their tour of South Africa.