Amla century leaves England in strife
Close England 356 (Swann 81, Harris 5-123) and 11 for 1 (Cook 4*, Anderson 6*) need another 353 runs to beat South Africa 418 (Kallis 120, Swann 5-110) and 301 for 6 dec (Amla 100)
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Hashim Amla rescued South Africa from a first-session meltdown with a brilliant and phlegmatic five-and-a-quarter-hour century, and in so doing, built a platform from which England were left dangling precariously at the end of an enthralling and fluctuating fourth day at Centurion. In the six overs available after Graeme Smith had declared with an unassailable lead of 363, Morne Morkel produced an unplayable second-ball snorter to extract the key scalp of Andrew Strauss for 1 - a massive breakthrough in their bid to claim the opening match of the series.
By the close, Alastair Cook and England's nightwatchman James Anderson had chiselled and grimaced to 11 for 1 in reply, an uncomfortable mini-session that meant that the day had finished as it had begun, with massive pressure being exerted on a jittery top-order by accurate and incisive new-ball bowling. On a dry and dusty surface, the extra hardness of the still-lacquered Kookaburra played havoc on the ever-widening cracks - and few deliveries misbehaved as badly as the Anderson shooter that eventually ended Amla's vigil after five deliveries of England's second new ball.
With that in mind, England's bid for survival will require a performance of Amla-esque sang froid, after he arrived in the middle in the third over of the day and had to watch from the non-striker's end as his captain Smith was himself skittled by a delivery from Graham Onions that barely rose above his bootlaces. With England alive to the possibilities and maintaining an admirable wicket-to-wicket line, South Africa's anxieties extended even to the normally unflappable Jacques Kallis, who ground his way to 4 from 32 balls before hoisting a surprise short ball from Broad straight down the throat of Cook at deep square leg.
At 46 for 4 in the 22nd over, South Africa were in serious jeopardy, especially given the manner in which Graeme Swann and Anderson had ripped the initiative away from them with their thrilling ninth-wicket partnership on Friday afternoon. But Amla retained his composure admirably in the conditions, crouching low in his stance to combat the bounce, but quick to cash in on anything loose, particularly with a spring-loaded cut shot.
Until his dismissal, his innings was virtually flawless. Swann's offspin caused him one moment of alarm on 23, when an lbw appeal was sent to the third umpire for review, but replays showed he was struck just outside the line. And on 49, he brought up his half-century from 106 balls with arguably his only false stroke in 213 attempts - a rash swipe for four that just skimmed out of the reach of the man at mid-on.
But if Amla was the linchpin, then the catalyst for South Africa's revival was de Villiers, with whom he added 119 for the fifth wicket in a fantastic post-lunch alliance. De Villiers' urgency and aggression transformed a run-rate that had been dawdling along at barely 2.5 an over, and in so doing, forced England out of their comfortable wicket-to-wicket mindset, and forced them to offer up more loose deliveries in search of the elusive unplayable ball.
His first shot in anger was a shimmy down the track to Swann and a handsome loft for six over mid-on, and though both Anderson and Onions hinted at a touch of reverse-swing, neither man could maintain a consistent line to utilise it to the max, with too many offerings sliding into the pads. He survived one moment of good fortune on 47, when a reviewed lbw from Onions was upheld in accordance with the original on-field decision, and it was eventually Broad who broke the stand, 20 minutes before tea, when Ian Bell at short cover scooped a scuffed drive off a slower ball.
On 11, JP Duminy redressed the review balance when his own marginal lbw decision was upheld, this time in Anderson's favour, but if England thought they were back in the hunt at 191 for 6 (a deficit of 253), then Mark Boucher came bursting out of the blocks in typically belligerent fashion. With Amla quite content to close down one end, Boucher blazed nine fours and a six in a 73-ball 63 not out, and reached the fifty that had eluded him in the first innings moments before Amla sealed his century with a sweet clip through midwicket off Broad.
By now, the demons in the wicket had vanished along with the hardness of the old ball, and while it was a frustration to England after a spate of morning successes, it also served as something of a reassurance that survival could be a simple matter of putting bat on ball on the final day - assuming, of course, that tomorrow's first hour with the six-over-old new ball doesn't prove to be a demolition derby.
Anderson's reaction on detonating Amla's off stump was instructive. Far from celebrate the moment, which left him with England's stand-out figures of 4 for 73, he booted the offending orb into the outfield as it rebounded into the path of his followthrough. In the final hour of the day, England's last vestiges of good humour were wiped away by Morkel, who flogged Broad for 18 in an over to hasten Smith's declaration, then responded to his new-ball opportunity by cramping Strauss from round the wicket, and grazing his edge with a perfect leaping delivery.
First shooters, then fliers. The net result is that England have a battle awaiting them on Sunday. And unless they can find an Amla of their own, their fortunes could be made or broken inside the first hour of play.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo