England v South Africa, 1st Investec Test, The Oval, 2nd day July 20, 2012

South Africa consolidate after bowlers fight back

South Africa 86 for 1 (Smith 37*, Amla 47*) trail England 385 (Cook 115, Trott 71, Prior 60, Morkel 4-72) by 299 runs
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details

South Africa were a team transformed on the second day at The Oval. The intensity and aggression, lacking for most of Thursday, was back in the bowling as they limited England's ambitions to 385 - not an insignificant total on pitch likely to offer increasing turn, but nowhere near enough to close out the match - then Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla gave an early indication of the sturdiness of South Africa's top order.

Before rain took an hour out of the evening session and zapped a little of the spark from the day this had developed into a contest worthy of a series with the No. 1 spot up for grabs. South Africa surged out of the blocks in a gripping start to the day, led by a revitalised Dale Steyn, to immediately set back England's ambitions by removing Alastair Cook and Ravi Bopara in consecutive overs. England's batting was given its toughest examination by pace since the Pakistan series in 2010, but they have not reached No. 1 by shirking a challenge.

Matt Prior, who had again showed why he can lay claim to being the top wicketkeeper-batsman in Tests, found support from Tim Bresnan, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann - the much-vaunted lower order - to ensure wickets seven to nine added 99 priceless runs. This was the ebb and flow expected between two such evenly-matched teams.

South Africa did not find life easy at the start of their innings. In his second over James Anderson produced a pin-point inswinger to trap Alviro Petersen lbw. But that was the only breakthrough England managed. They targeted Smith's pads, which brought some close shaves but also scoring opportunities through the leg side, while Amla timed the ball beautifully off front and back foot. Amla finds it almost impossible to hit an ugly boundary.

One delivery, though, from Swann will have interested England more than most when it turned sharply to square up Smith on the back foot. There was also an opportunity, shortly before the close, for a vital wicket when the introduction of Bopara nearly paid off. Amla drove off the back foot and the edge flew to Andrew Strauss's left - he was standing wide at first slip - and he could not grab it one-handed. Strauss, as is his style, verged on the defensive with his fields once the partnership was settled.

Whatever had been said by the South Africans overnight made a huge difference. Steyn was curiously subdued on the opening day, sending down 21 wicketless overs and needing treatment off the field on his ankle, but emerged on Friday morning with a performance much more akin to the No. 1 fast bowler in the world. In the third over of the day he removed Cook, England's lynchpin, who added just one to his overnight score when he dragged a drive into his stumps.

That opened the way for his Essex team-mate, Bopara, to resume his Test career at No. 6 but it was not a happy comeback. The ball after a loud shot for lbw from Steyn - the delivery was just clipping leg stump - Bopara was left in two minds how to play a bouncer. He was caught between hooking and leaving, which resulted in him dangling his bat high in the air and feathering an edge to AB de Villiers.

The quality of the bowling - Steyn's pace and Vernon Philander's subtle swing - kept England's batsmen virtually scoreless. The opening eight overs of the day brought six runs for the loss of the two key wickets. Prior picked up the first boundary of the day when offered some rare width by Steyn, but was involved in a horrid mix-up with Ian Bell next ball that could have led to another wicket.

Yet it was only momentary relief for the home side. Jacques Kallis was introduced as first change and produced an opening over of the highest class to dislodge Bell. He started with two outswingers before his fourth ball nipped back, Bell shouldered arms and the ball grazed the off bail. Kallis initially appealed for lbw before realising the job was already done. England had lost 4 for 33 going back to Kevin Pietersen's gloved pull on Thursday evening and the game looked very different.

The four-pronged pace attack offered few poor deliveries, although Morkel was the least consistent and Prior took advantage with a pull, a drive and a cut to relieve a little of the pressure. Prior could have gone on 17, when Jacques Rudolph spilled a low chance at gully, with England on 298 for 6.

Having started to steady the innings it will have been galling for England that a poor delivery from Imran Tahir broke the seventh-wicket stand when Bresnan dragged on a short ball. However, Prior and Broad resumed after lunch with a positive mindset as boundaries started to flow. Prior led the way with a series of wonderful drives, but Broad wasn't lost in comparison as he drove Steyn off the back foot through cover. Philander broke the counterattack when he swung one back into Broad although England did not block their way through the rest of the innings.

Swann was clonked on the helmet second ball by Steyn, but responded by swatting the fast bowler for two boundaries in his next over. Swann is unlikely to miss the opportunity to remind his team-mates that he was the one left stranded at the end after Prior edged Morne Morkel and Anderson gloved down the leg side four balls later. That made it five catches for de Villiers in a very competent display as Mark Boucher's replacement.

Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo