England limp after de Villiers' epic
South Africa maintained their domination of the second Test at Headingley, leaving England in the forlorn position of 50 for 2 at stumps on the third day, still trailing by 269. AB de Villiers' magnificent 174 lofted South Africa's first innings to 522, grinding down England's weary bowlers mercilessly. On a wearing pitch, the hosts have rather little hope of preventing South Africa taking a 1-0 series lead in the next 48 hours.
South Africa have outplayed them in nearly every session since the third day at Lord's, and it is due to their resilient batting that the home have been left kicking the turf in frustration. England's prospect of batting all day tomorrow and Tuesday to save the Test is not one they will cherish, on a surface beginning to offer variable bounce and movement. South Africa fought back brilliantly to save the Lord's Test, but that was on a pitch more akin to Lahore than London. Still, Headingley has history in creating history.
It was pleasing to see Makhaya Ntini return to something like his best, too. Poor at Lord's and disappointing in the first innings, he bowled much wider of the crease today - like he used to - as recommended by his former team-mate, Shaun Pollock. The acute angle created, slanting across both Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss, affected the judgement of their off stump, but it wasn't until he went around the wicket that he really threatened. A surprise lifter outside off was fended behind by Strauss, and South Africa had kicked the door open on weary England.
England so nearly resisted. For once, Michael Vaughan survived several near misses off Dale Steyn who produced two leg-cutting jaggers that zipped off the seam. Vaughan picked him off through midwicket twice, but Steyn continued to attack and could easily have had him lbw on 9. However, with one over left in the day, Ntini squared him up with a corking leg-cutter to cap a perfect day's Test cricket.
South Africa owe their position to Ashwell Prince and de Villiers, whose hundreds - though not always glitzy, attractive innings - were models of patience and resilience, and they needed to be. England fought hard this morning, grateful for a pitch that at last offered seam movement, and both batsmen could have fallen within the first hour. Inevitably, it was to Andrew Flintoff that Vaughan turned for early inspiration, and in a lively morning spell he found encouraging movement off the pitch, beating de Villiers with several leg-cutters and even luring the normally sober Prince into a washy drive outside off.
James Anderson impressed throughout, though to judge by his pained expression and Angus Fraser-like kicks at the turf, his patience wore thin as he passed the edge of Prince and de Villiers' bat time after time. de Villiers was particularly tentative, doubtless nervous about a possible hundred, and was beaten all ends up by a corking outswinger that came off his hip. England were at last making them work.
They were far from faultless, tiring visibly, and for all Anderson's occasional jaffas, too often they were followed by half-volley gifts that de Villiers made sure to capitalise on, flicking through midwicket with fine timing. Prince was less tentative, and accordingly less patient, edging the impressive Darren Pattinson behind one short of his 150. Nevertheless, South Africa's lead had swelled beyond 200.
Mark Boucher struggled, as he has all series, and narrowly escaped edging behind on numerous occasions, but de Villiers powered onwards and upwards to register his sixth Test hundred from 264 balls. The Headingley crowd unsportingly booed their disapproval, doubtless with a nod to de Villiers' non-catch which he tried to claim on the first day, but this was a courageous and skilful innings, even if the half-cut couldn't bear to acknowledge it. Anderson was eventually rewarded for persistence when he bowled Boucher, and de Villiers fell to an outstanding catch by Flintoff at first slip - diving to his left to pluck a grass-licker - while Monty Panesar picked up 3 for 65. The damage had been done, however, and in losing two late wickets, England look down and out.
The door hasn't quite been shut on them, but it is only just ajar. Not even the weather is looking down in their favour with two days' hard work ahead.
Will Luke is a staff writer at Cricinfo