South Africa v England, 5th Test, Centurion, 4th day January 24, 2005

Sands of time running out on South Africa

South Africa 247 and 59 for 2 trail England 359 (Thorpe 85, Flintoff 77, G Jones 50, Nel 6-81) by 53 runs
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details

Andrew Flintoff hits out on his way to 77 © Getty Images

England did enough on the fourth day at Centurion to ensure that this match - and with it all hopes of squaring the series - is now beyond South Africa. After easing to a first-innings lead of 112 and, just as crucially taking two and a half sessions to do so, South Africa were left needing to play some remarkable cricket to have any likelihood of getting a result. Even Hansie Cronje at his most creative would have struggled.

As the shadows lengthened and the Barmy Army grew louder, South Africa, whose only hope was suicidally-quick runs, meandered to 59 for 2 in 19 overs, both wickets falling to Andrew Flintoff. Herschelle Gibbs fell to the thinnest of edges for 4 and then Andrew Hall, promoted up the order for unfathomable reasons, was clean bowled by Flintoff for 9. If this was his penultimate day before returning home for a date with his surgeon, Flintoff was signing off in style.

And it could have been game, set and match had Geraint Jones held a hard chance from Jacques Kallis off the last ball of the day from Ashley Giles. England kept things tight to the end as if they sensed that their chance of victory increased as South Africa's diminished.

South Africa started the day needing quick wickets, but it took them more than three hours to separate Graham Thorpe and Flintoff. In fairness, the pitch conspired against them, continuing its metamorphosis from greentop to straw-coloured belter. Any hopes that yesterday's deluge would inject some life into the surface were dispelled in the opening over when Makhaya Ntini banged one in and it barely rose above waist height. That nullified the venom of Ntini and Shaun Pollock, and even the fiery Nel was forced to concentrate on his line and length rather than snarling aggression. But as much as they huffed and puffed, on such a featherbed their efforts were in vain, although Nel gained some reward when he ripped through the tail late in the day, finishing with a Test-best 6 for 81.

No shrinking violet: Andre Nel celebrates dismissing Ashley Giles on his way to 6 for 81 © Getty Images
The morning was all about England ensuring there was no repeat of yesterday's pre-lunch collapse, and Thorpe and an uncharacteristically subdued Flintoff did that with few alarms. Only the occasional offspin of Graeme Smith, which has bamboozled Thorpe in previous matches, threatened and twice rock-solid appeals for leg-before were brushed aside by Steve Bucknor.

Bucknor was not South Africa's favourite, and a sense that he was not going to do them any favours was underlined when he dismissed Pollock's appeal against a creasebound Giles soon after he had arrived. Hawk-Eye might not be infallible but it didn't help Bucknor's reputation, and a sense that he was not quite with it came early on when he called a five-ball over, an error pointed out by his colleague and a rasping message on his walkie-talkie from the third umpire.

In the afternoon Flintoff opened up, freed from the shackles of sensibility and more like the Freddie who empties bars across England. He combined the spectacular - most notably a massive six off Ntini - with the lucky, one looping off the shoulder of his bat over the slips and another lobbing into a recently-vacated space at midwicket. In 50 minutes after the break he smacked 47, while Thorpe, who added 7 in the same period, proceeded with metronomic efficiency at the other end.

Down and almost out: frustration for Graeme Smith © Getty Images
The enjoyment for the small crowd, who had been woken by Flintoff's fireworks, and two seemingly surefire hundreds was ended with two quick strikes. The breakthrough came courtesy of a superb inswinging Nel yorker which removed Thorpe's leg stump. Thorpe's patient 85 had been vital. When he came to the crease England were 29 for 3 and wobbling, when he departed the balance of the match was quite different. In the next over, Flintoff aimed an expansive backfoot drive off a length ball from Hall but only nicked it to Mark Boucher. Thorpe and Flintoff had added 141.

The odds were still staked against South Africa, but had they immediately blown away the tail then they had a chance. But Geraint Jones and Giles chose attack as the best form of defence, and the game, and with it the series, disappeared over the horizon in a flurry of boundaries in the hour before tea. Jones smacked a sublime 52-ball 50 which ruthlessly snuffed out any South African fightback.

After the break Nel polished off England with four post-tea wickets. It might be no coincidence that Nel's success came when he abandoned the histrionics which had been his trademark yesterday and concentrated on old-fashioned line and length. Two of the wickets - Geraint Jones and Matthew Hoggard - came courtesy of excellent, low slip catches, while Giles was bowled round his legs and Steve Harmison was trapped leg-before. After an ordinary display this morning, Nel was the pick of the bowlers and he never wavered during an energy-sapping long spell.

But his personal success came too late in the day. Tomorrow there are only two results possible, and neither of them involves a win for South Africa.

Martin Williamson is managing editor of Cricinfo.