Cruel luck for Fleming as NZ stage rearguard action
On a day when his side produced a fightback brimming with spirit and courage, New Zealand captain Stephen Fleming suffered the bitter disappointment of failing to convert his 26th Test fifty to a third hundred.
Fleming was given out, caught in the gully off Allan Donald, for 99. So close and yet so far as New Zealand doggedly kept South Africa waiting for victory. At stumps on the fourth day of the first Castle Lager/MTN Test match the tourists were 260 for five in their follow-on innings, 18 ahead with a day to play.
Fleming's innings - and its conclusion - was the centrepiece of an absorbing, if not quite thrilling day. He made 57 in the first innings before getting himself out a little softly, going down the wicket to left-arm spinner Nicky Boje.
The circumstances of his dismissal in the second innings were far more dramatic. With the Goodyear Park pitch apparently having long since given up the ghost, Allan Donald produced a snorter of a ball that reared viciously up at Fleming. The batsmen fended it away from his throat, but only to Gary Kirsten, and umpire Arani Jayaprakash gave Fleming out.
From the umpire's perspective, the decision must have seemed straightforward, but repeated television replays cast doubt on the dismissal as it became less and less clear whether the ball had struck Fleming's glove, bat handle or forearm.
Fleming himself was unable to comment on the decision, but he did say how disappointing it had been. "You feel the excitement building up and I guess there's just a feeling of being flat," he said. "You don't get the opportunity to experience the magic feeling of getting the hundred."
His view of the delivery was "a bit quicker than the slo-mo and I didn't see too much of it. You can't really comment on it. It's just disappointing to get 99".
Especially so in the context of the match. New Zealand started the day one down for 82 and were quickly 93 for two when Lance Klusener took a stunning catch in the gully off Donald to get rid of Mathew Sinclair for 24.
Fleming and Mark Richardson then added 52 for the third before Donald had Richardson LBW for 77 with a toe-cruncher and Nathan Astle did not last long before chopping Makhaya Ntini on for 8 with a poor shot.
But Fleming and Craig McMillan kept South Africa at bay for a further 141 minutes as they added 72 for the fifth wicket. Fleming's dismissal was a double cruel blow for both the man and his captain, and although the odds always favoured a South African victory, this wicket will make their task that much easier.
New Zealand, though, still believe they can save the game.
"We think so," said Fleming. "We're going to make it damn hard for them to win it and while we don't like playing this type of cricket - we'd much rather be pushing for positive cricket and winning ourselves - I think we're in a situation where we didn't play well enough for the first two days. The thing about this team is we want to play quality cricket whatever we do."
But with Fleming gone, and only Adam Parore as a recognised batsman to come, it now seems that only the weather can save New Zealand. And that, given unsettled conditions around the country, is not entirely out of the question.