Close but no cigar for valiant South Africa
The excitement was all too much for the Centurion Park scoreboard. As Friedel de Wet, summoned for a Test debut at the 11th hour following Dale Steyn's injury, began his new-ball demolition of England it seized up, as though unable to keep up with the speed of the collapse. The board was revived with three overs to go but couldn't display a South African victory as Graham Onions defied Makhaya Ntini's final over in a heart-stopping passage of play.
South Africa really had no right to get so close, but they refused to give up on the chance of taking a series lead. As had been the pattern throughout the Test, batting had become much easier once the shine had gone off the new ball, and the 145-run stand between Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen had left everything thinking of Durban.
But Test matches can turn on moments of madness and moments of inspiration. South Africa enjoyed both as Pietersen ran himself out and AB de Villiers held a stunning catch at third slip to remove Trott as the second new ball did the trick. Then South Africa surged through England like a team possessed and it felt as though they had unstoppable momentum behind them in the closing overs.
"When we took the new ball there was nothing there for us, then suddenly in 12 overs the game was turned on its head and that's a terrific effort in itself," Graeme Smith said. "It's exciting to be a part of, it was exciting for the crowd and those watching at home. It sets up a terrific series and we got a lot more out of those last 12 to 14 overs than anyone expected."
In that period, de Wet managed more than a passable impression of the man he replaced. Like Steyn, he finds movement from a full length and after being handed the second new ball produced a spell of 3 for 11 as England lost 5 for 13 in 11.1 overs. The force was with him, but Smith opted to give the final over to Ntini, a man imbued with the spirit of his 100th Test. Hard though he tried, he couldn't force a way through Onions' impressively straight bat.
"I'd pushed Friedel quite hard in that session and I think he'd just run out of puff at the end," Smith said. "Probably an over or two before he'd run out, and there was always the thought of a romantic ending for Makhaya."
Smith's comment does raise an interesting question. Had he allowed himself to be swayed too much by this being billed as Ntini's match? Ntini had looked the least threatening bowler all day and his two wickets for the game came from a shooter to Andrew Strauss and a catch at mid-off to remove Jimmy Anderson. Hardly the returns of a strike bowler. It hasn't been the done thing to criticise Ntini this week, but his final-day performance only went to reinforce the local view that he is past his peak.
De Wet's success now leaves the hosts with some tricky decisions ahead of Durban. Steyn is likely to be fit, Morne Morkel provides useful variation with his height and Paul Harris is a certainty. That leaves Ntini as the vulnerable option although it would take a brave selector to leave him out. Last in, first out would give the selectors an easy option, but de Wet's swing in Durban could be a handy weapon.
When potential political issues are taken out of the equation the success of a weakened attack has left South Africa in a stronger position than when they began the match. Without their leading strike bowler and the services of Jacques Kallis as an allrounder, serious question marks were raised over the line-up at Smith's disposal. However, de Wet's performance, Harris's five-wicket haul and the sight of Kallis having a three-over spell - albeit off three paces - means the home side can only get stronger.
"There wasn't as much there for us this morning as we hoped for. We hit good areas and asked enough questions, that's all I asked of the bowlers today," Smith said. "Friedel bowled a terrific spell and put the ball in the right area, I think he bowled well throughout the day and the new ball offered him more off the surface as was the case through the last two days.
"The best thing about today was the way we stuck at it, the guys never took their foot off the gas, even from tea-time when the game looked as though it was cruising to draw, and I'm proud of that."
With that feeling at the forefront of his mind, and the fact that South Africa held the aces for the majority of the game, Smith insisted his team won't hold any lingering regrets that they couldn't claim the final wicket.
"There's a touch of frustration maybe at not getting over the line but not disappointment," he said. "All the emotions in that dressing room are of excitement at getting so close and having bowled so well. It made it worth sticking at it all day and gives us momentum going into the next Test.
"Before this Test a lot of guys were asking where we were after eight-and-a-half months out of the Test arena and we finished the five days on top. England probably had a morning and a partnership between [Graeme] Swann and [Jimmy] Anderson throughout the game. Unfortunately we were a little short of getting over the line here but we can take a lot of confidence to Durban."
Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo