August 16, 2003

Into the hands of fate

England v South Africa, 3rd Test, Trent Bridge, Day 3

Neil McKenzie: stole England's fizz

After muttering under their breath about the state of the Trent Bridge pitch, South Africa lost two wickets in the opening over of the day, and a fretful Jacques Kallis shortly afterwards. But by the close, they had not merely averted the follow-on (which at 132 for 5 had been a distinct possibility), they had brought the day full circle. Marcus Trescothick's late dismissal completed a hugely satisfying day for South Africa - one which has seriously dented England's prospects of levelling the series.

England did secure a first-innings lead of 83, and a decent fist of an innings tomorrow should ensure them against an unlikely defeat. With just two days remaining, however, that all-important victory is slipping over the horizon. Today South Africa called upon a facet of their game that went unused at Edgbaston and Lord's - as ever, their tail is every bit as combative and adhesive as their top.

Neil McKenzie is a batsman whose superstitions border on the neurotic - he routinely tapes his bat to the ceiling before an innings, and has to make sure that all the toilet seats are down before goes out to the middle. Such habits are good preparation for days like these, when survival is largely decided by the whims of fate. Though he fell short of a hugely deserved century, McKenzie stole the initiative in a flurry of cuts, drives and pulls, and the fizz went out of England's performance, and consequently, the pitch.

England never let their heads drop, particularly Andrew Flintoff who once again went under-rewarded for his tireless efforts. But they were on their chinstraps by the end, as Pollock made merry alongside Paul Adams, who revived memories of Cape Town 1996 with his frustratingly unorthodox survival tactics, and Makhaya Ntini, who had left Pollock stranded on 99 not out in a recent Test against Sri Lanka, but this time found enough self-restraint to add 25 for the tenth wicket.

The most encouraging aspect of England's day was the performance of James Anderson, who rediscovered his old buzzsaw seam movement to take his second five-wicket haul in five Tests. He and James Kirtley on the one hand, and the bulldozers Steve Harmison and Flintoff on the other, should provide enough energy and variety to push South Africa to the limit on the fifth day. Assuming, of course, that England's batsmen fight as hard as their opposite numbers did today.

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