England v South Africa, 3rd npower Test, Edgbaston July 30, 2008

Nel seizes his chance

Andre Nel made the most of his chance on the opening day © Getty Images

Andre Nel has not played a Test match since taking on West Indies at Durban back in January, but he put half a year's worth of frustrations to exemplary use on the first day at Edgbaston. His fiery three-wicket performance, coupled with a fine display of swing bowling from Jacques Kallis at the other end, has given South Africa every chance of wrapping up their first series win in England for 43 years.

Nel was only playing in this game as a replacement for South Africa's premier strike bowler, Dale Steyn, who suffered a broken thumb while fielding during the second Test at Headingley. But his 34-match Test experience was just what South Africa required as they carried their momentum forward from last week's crushing ten-wicket victory.

"It's been a while, for five months I've been eager to play," said Nel. "Steynjie's unfortunately broken his finger, but I'm going to go in and enjoy it as much as possible, because you never know, it might be my last Test match. You've got to enjoy while you have the chance."

There was never much doubt that Nel would live the moment to the full. Running in from a bowling mark that bore the name of his oxygen-starved alter-ego "Gunter" [sic] he delivered figures of 3 for 47 that were comprised of England's top three - including Andrew Strauss to a fortuitous hit-wicket, and Michael Vaughan for a first-ball duck.

But it was the wicket of his former Essex team-mate, Alastair Cook, that gave Nel the greatest pleasure. Cook top-scored for England with a hard-earned 76, but when he edged low to Kallis at second slip, Nel reacted by punching the air and screaming nonsensically in the bewildered batsman's face - possibly in response to Cook's joking suggestion in yesterday's papers that Nel is "an idiot".

"I was very happy about getting him out," said Nel. "Maybe I celebrated a bit too much but we're going out for dinner tonight, so we'll have a few beers then." The way England's batsmen coped in conditions that were no more than mildly challenging suggests that the beers option might already have been taken.

There was a definite lack of co-ordination about the dismissal that triggered England's subsidence - that of Strauss, who had batted fluently for his 20 before hopping back into the crease and putting his heel straight through middle stump. "I got a lucky break and that changed the momentum for us in that session," said Nel. "After that it was a different game for the whole day through. I was about to shout at myself for bowling down the leg-side, but then Bouch [Mark Boucher] came running to me saying he's out, so I was pretty excited."

Nel did not, however, allow his excitement to run away with him, which was the secret of South Africa's success. To that end, he paid tribute to the role of Kallis at the other end, who ran uphill and into the wind, and strangled England's best attacking instincts with a cool display of swing bowling.

"I can't compliment Jacques enough for the way he bowled for us," said Nel. "He was really fired up and kept it tight for us so we could be more aggressive from the other end. He bowled an unbelievable spell today. The wicket's slow but it swings a bit, and we just had to be patient, and not too eager."

South Africa are confident about their overnight position, but the late dismissal of Graeme Smith to a pumped-up Andrew Flintoff was a timely reminder of the trials that could yet lie ahead. "We bowled well today, but tomorrow is a massive day for us," said Nel. "We've got to apply ourselves well tomorrow and get some runs and get them under pressure. We've been in this situation before, and though we've done well today, there are still four days left and all of us are really determined we don't let it slip."

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo