England learn the hard reality
Well, you didn't think it would be easy, did you? If England, buoyed by a decent first day, were under any illusions about the magnitude of the task ahead, they were soon dispelled. It was not so much that South Africa staged a comeback, more that they sustained the pressure of the first day and belatedly won some reward.
This was how Test cricket used to be: hard; demanding; unforgiving. Some might even describe a first session that brought 57 runs and a day of 204 in 72.5 overs as slow. But it was a compelling day of cricket. It may not be to everyone's taste and it is true that this pitch remains rather slower than is ideal for an encounter of this magnitude, but there was a full crowd at The Oval for the second day in succession and there will be for the next two, too. The appetite for Test cricket remains strong in England.
It ended with South Africa just about the happier of the two sides. Hashim Amla and Graeme Smith, who has so far scored 37 in 37 overs, blunted the England attack, providing more evidence that the best way to prosper against England's bowling is through determination, discipline and patience. It was an example given by Misbah-ul-Haq and Azhar Ali in the UAE and Mahela Jayawardene in Sri Lanka but, in an age when many batsmen are more likely to attack than defend, not every team has the skill or the temperament for the task. It bodes well for South Africa that they have several such players.
The result is far from assured, though. With England's bowlers able to take advantage of bowling last on a pitch that will offer increasing assistance to the spinners and is showing just a few signs of some variable bounce, it would be unwise to draw too many conclusions.
"This is what we can expect all series," Matt Prior said afterwards. "It's not just going to go our way. We know that. But it would be easy to think that this was South Africa's day and we're no longer in a good position. It's a very attritional wicket. It's hard to score runs quickly. We have to hold them, put pressure on them and hope we can get wickets in clusters."
There were some lessons to be learned for both sides. Just as England will have realised that the dismissal of Kevin Pietersen, edging an attempted hook late on the first day and the over before the new ball was taken, precipitated something of a collapse - England slipped from 251 for 2 to 313 for 7 - South Africa will know that they cannot afford to squander chances in the field.
The let-offs involving Matt Prior - he was dropped on 17 and involved in mix-up that could have seen either him or Ian Bell run out - allowed England to stretch their first innings towards 400 at a time when it seemed they could be snuffed out for little over 300.
The conclusion must be that, in such an encounter, neither side can afford to give the other an inch. When Jonathan Trott and Cook were together, England had the chance to establish a match-defining total. But, with Trott squandering his platform with a loose drive and Cook, after a day of denial, finding himself drawn into pushing at one he could have left, England played a role in allowing South Africa back into the game. They will need to be even more ruthless, even more determined and even more patient if they are to win.
South Africa did not bowl so differently on day two compared to day one. The results were different, certainly - South Africa's bowlers claimed three wickets for 17 runs in the first 11 overs of the day - but that was more because England's most resilient batsmen had been removed and the others struggled with some high-quality bowling. But it was not so dissimilar to the efforts that were rendered deceptively insipid on day one by some fine batting.
Certainly Bell with the victim of some fine bowling. He had left the ball as well as Trott and Cook but, set up by two that went away from him from Jacques Kallis, he left one that came back and clipped his off bail. Such dismissals are always likely to render the batsmen a little foolish but it was a reminder that Kallis, despite a lacklustre first day, still possesses wonderful skills.
It would be premature to jump to conclusions about Ravi Bopara's future at this level. Having waited a long time for this comeback opportunity, he showed some understandable signs of nerves. His dismissal, unsure whether to hook or leave and finally doing a bit of both, was frustrating as the suspicion remains that, had he received the same delivery in a county game, he would have dealt with it comfortably.
The fact is, though, that this dismissal represented Bopara's fifth duck in 17 completed Test innings. It is an ugly record and the subsequent media attention he will suffer is unlikely to help. He has extravagant ability, though, and if England are to avoid him becoming the Hick or Ramprakash of his generation,he is worth some patience and careful handling over the coming weeks. He might also have made amends when Amla, on 38, slashed a cut to slip in Bopara's first over, but Andrew Strauss put down the chance.
"385 is a good score on that wicket," Prior insisted afterwards, "350 is a par score." Maybe. The suspicion remains that it could prove difficult to remove patient batsmen intent on accumulation and, on the second day, Smith and Amla out-Trotted Trott.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo