England v South Africa, 1st Test, Lord's, 4th day July 13, 2008

England's momentum hits the wall

The three innings to date of this Lord's Test have played out like some convoluted brainteaser

England tried everything, but found no assistance from the pitch or the conditions© Getty Images

The three innings to date of this Lord's Test have played out like some convoluted brainteaser. If a hostile pace attack with no discipline allows a disciplined batting unit to score a mountain of runs, and a gentle pace attack with loads of discipline skittles an ill-focussed batting line-up, what happens when a disciplined but gentle attack comes up against a disciplined batting unit?

Stalemate would appear to be the answer, after a fourth day at Lord's that evoked memories of Michael Atherton's bloodyminded rearguard at Johannesburg 12 years ago. As Graeme Smith and Neil McKenzie planted their broad bats in the way of everything that England could fling at them, another more recent memory bobbed into view as well. Sri Lanka's great escape in 2006 was achieved on this same ground from a position of even greater ignominy - they were already six-down at the start of the fifth day's play. On a track as flat as this, another day of better-than-average batting should suffice to save the Test for South Africa.

At which point, the brainteaser really starts to get interesting. Because on Friday, the second Test gets underway at Headingley, and that is the moment that England will really feel the burn. By late afternoon, Ryan Sidebottom was visibly labouring with a stiff back, and that was just the visible aspect of England's collective weariness. If Michael Vaughan loses the toss on the first morning after three sapping days in the field, the momentum of this series could be transformed overnight.

South Africa are, after all, the second-best side in the world, and the chance of them stringing together another three-day run of shocking performances is next to nil. If, on the other hand, England are off the boil after the travails of this Test, Smith and his colleagues have already laid bare their determination. Their chastened pacemen will have been heeding their lessons over the past two days as well, so batting on the first morning might not be a whole lot of fun for England either.

Such is the beauty of England versus South Africa Test series, a contest in which the momentum ebbs and flows like no other. Only once since 1994 has either side managed to string together two winning performances in a row, and on that occasion, in 1998, England were already coming from behind in the series. After four days of flawed but furious competition, the pattern for this summer has been beautifully mapped out.

For Michael Vaughan, the dangers of the coming days are probably etched on his retina. Three years ago in Durban, England threw everything they had into a match that South Africa saved in the final-day twilight. Drained by the experience, they collapsed in a ragged heap three days later in Cape Town. And a similar scenario was played out five years earlier as well, on Vaughan's debut tour - England enforced the follow-on at Durban, only to be thwarted by Gary Kirsten's 275. Three days later, down they toppled, by an innings and 37 runs at Cape Town.

"The dangers of enforcing the follow-on are that you could end up bowling for three days," admitted England's bowling coach, Ottis Gibson. "But we still feel we've done well enough over the last four days to go on and win the game, and that's what we have to go to sleep believing. South Africa didn't do much wrong today, they deserve credit for the way they played, but if we get early wickets tomorrow we can still get into the likes of AB de Villiers and Mark Boucher, who haven't had much batting yet on tour."

It was hard, on today's evidence, to see how England will break down the defences that South Africa have erected around their innings. Aside from some sharp turn for Monty Panesar, the pitch remains as pristine as it was when Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell were adding 286 for England's fourth wicket, and if anything it has got even more sluggish for the seamers. Vaughan toyed and tinkered as best he could in the field, but yet more back-breaking toil beckons tomorrow.

"I'm disappointed we didn't get more wickets, but at the same time I'm quite happy with the work we've done," said Gibson. "The ball is not bouncing as much and the slips have moved way up, and the bowlers were getting tired, that's human nature. But in the last hour, they were still running in and being aggressive."

But as yesterday's irresistible force met today's immoveable object, England's lack of extreme menace suddenly flowed back into view. There was only one tactic that could have dented South Africa's resolve in conditions as unhelpful as these - high-class reverse-swing, preferably delivered at 90mph. Yesterday, his recall was being put back on hold, but suddenly the need for Andrew Flintoff is as plain as the pitch on which he is so sorely missed. How to accommodate him, however, is the biggest brainteaser of all.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo