Hussain scores England's maiden first class century of 1999
England fumbled around like a pimply adolescent on a first date for most of a glorious sunny Sunday at Kingsmead, before Andrew Flintoff and Alex Tudor finally drove home the advantage and provided some entertainment.
The third day ended prematurely with the tourists on 401 for eight in reply to Natal's first innings of 310. Fittingly, given England's negative attitude, it was their refusal to allow floodlights to be used to counter bad light on this tour which costing 8.5 overs of action on Sunday.
Before Flintoff and Tudor put on a sparkling unbeaten partnership of 85 for the ninth wicket, the day had been dominated by visiting captain Nasser Hussain, who scored England's first first-class century of 1999. Having got off the mark with a six on Saturday, Hussain was cautious almost to the extreme on Sunday. Although there was joy in the England camp that the three-figure mark had finally been breached, the innings itself stirred few emotions, except amongst the Natalians, who felt they clearly had him caught behind the wicket on two occasions, off Jon Kent and Kevin Pietersen.
Hussain's century took all of 270 balls and on the flattest of pitches against an average attack, one would have expected the England captain to have led more of a charge. Instead, the batting practice seemed to be focused almost exclusively on defensive technique as England, resuming on 163 for two, scored just six runs in the first 12 overs of the day and 63 in the 40 overs before lunch.
Michael Vaughan, who began the day on 27, did nothing to enhance his confidence by crawling to 46 before edging an attempted late cut off Pietersen to wicketkeeper Duncan Brown, and Chris Adams was bowled through the gate two balls later. It was perfect reward for the off-spinner, who has enlivened this match no end with his bright talent.
He came to the wicket on Saturday with Natal still in trouble on 203 for seven, and even though the gifted Kent had got Natal out of dire straits with a century of great class and composure, it was Pietersen who was to cause the English bowlers the most problems. Tall and powerful in the Pat Symcox mould, he ground down the visiting attack, helping himself to four fours and four sixes in his 61 not out off just 57 balls. He and Gary Gilder (28) plundered 69 off 65 balls for the last wicket as England threw away their advantage with some very poor bowling, Andy Caddick apart.
His bowling was also very impressive, the 19-year-old tempting the batsmen down the pitch, but varying his pace and flight to deny them free hits.
Pietersen was at the forefront, having bowled 55.5 overs in the innings, as Natal toiled manfully on Sunday. The crowd may not have had much action to enthuse about, but they could at least appreciate Natal's tenacity in the field on a hot day.
After Hussain and Darren Maddy (38) had put on 61 together, Natal claimed four wickets for 54 runs to put themselves in position to limit England (316 for eight) to a small first-innings lead. Part-time leg-spinner Ahmed Amla claimed two rare wickets, with full tosses, but it was Pietersen who got the big fish, beating Hussain (103) with another big turner through the gate.
But with the light fading rapidly and Natal captain Dale Benkenstein reluctant to use frontline seamers Ross Veenstra and Gary Gilder, Flintoff and Tudor produced the best batting of the day to extend the lead over Natal to 91 before the umpires called off play. Taking advantage of a tiring attack, the pair struck 85 runs in the last 82 minutes.
All-rounder Flintoff is the heaviest member of the England team and, despite Hussain's century, it was he who took the individual honours on the third day. His 74 not out took up 146 minutes and came off just 108 balls, including 11 boundaries struck with great power.
Amongst the Natal bowlers, no-one worked harder than Pietersen, who finished the day with a career-best four for 141, but Veenstra was also impressive.
The former Gauteng player joined Kent and Pietersen in having confident appeals turned down and his tidy figures of one for 38 off 27 overs were scant reward for his efforts.
Provincial matches against touring sides do not have results as their primary purpose and this encounter looks certain to end in a draw on Monday.
But in ideal batting conditions, England's failure to take command of the depleted Natal attack has been disappointing. For their own sake and for those wanting a competitive Test series, one can only hope Hussain tries to engender a positive spirit amongst the batsmen. Yesterday's defensive approach not only greatly encouraged the young Natal bowlers, but also points to Allan Donald and Co maintaining their psychological hold over the English batsmen.