England rewarded for playing waiting game
Rarely has creating something out of nothing seemed quite such an appropriate phrase. At tea on the opening day at Durban, England were looking short of options and short of ideas, but six overs into the evening session, there was a very different complexion to proceedings. All of a sudden it was the tourists who ended in the happier position.
That's how quickly Test matches can change. The value of adding two wickets to any scoreline was highlighted as a pair of batsmen who looked set to reach hundreds, Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith, fell within 17 balls of each for 75 apiece. But it was the manner of their dismissals - Kallis caught at slip pushing forward against Graeme Swann and Smith run out in a horrendous mix-up - that made the turnaround so much more unlikely. All throughout the day, it was England's quicks who had looked like causing the problems.
The feeling persists that England have picked a team to hang in during this series, rather than take it by the scruff of the neck - once again, they opted to play the extra batsman in Ian Bell rather than strengthen the bowling with Luke Wright or Ryan Sidebottom. But if that is the plan, so far it is paying dividends. They managed to escape Centurion with a draw and have now clawed back their position at Kingsmead to such an extent that it was South Africa who were relieved when bad light closed in.
"When they were 160 for 2 and then all of a sudden you take three big wickets it puts it right back in our favour, and we feel as if we've finished the day quite strongly," said the pick of England's bowlers, Graham Onions. "But the way we bowled and fielded I thought we deserved that little bit of luck that came our way. We hung in there during a tough period when the ball wasn't doing a great deal."
Batting had been hard work against England's three frontline pacemen, especially during the first hour when Onions, James Anderson and Stuart Broad were outstanding. But in energy-sapping humidity they couldn't carry on forever and had to be rotated in short spells. Andrew Strauss had to turn to his other options with Swann coming on inside the second hour. Even Jonathan Trott was handed an over before lunch, and had another exploratory spell ahead of Onions in the afternoon session.
Still, it's dangerous to jump to early conclusions and crucially for Strauss the scoring never ran away from England. In the first innings at Centurion, England showed an ability to dry up the run-rate when not taking wickets, which is a priceless commodity for a captain who doesn't possess the strongest strike options. Helped by the early stranglehold offered by two new-ball blows, the first 14 overs brought a measly 18 runs and South Africa's run-rate didn't push above three-an-over all day. Which meant that, as and when England could somehow fashion a breakthrough, they would be right back in the match.
After tea it came from that man, Swann, who has never been far from the action in the early stages of this series. In conditions similar to Centurion, which suited pace far more than spin, he cleverly came round the wicket and pushed one across Kallis that was edged to Paul Collingwood at slip. Yet, the next scalp was the one that really changed the balance of power when Smith and AB de Villiers were involved in a Pietersen-Trott style piece of running, which resulted in the South Africa captain departing, although only by a matter of inches.
"We weren't 100% sure," Onions said, after Alastair Cook had sprinted for the stumps and broken the wicket with ball in hand. "Then when it goes up to the changing rooms, you're looking up there hoping. We were just thinking, this is a key part of the game. If he was not out, how would it have finished?
"But it was very good thinking by Alastair. He was going to throw it at AB's end - but eventually he thought: 'No, I'm going to try to get Smith out'. He could quite easily have thrown at the stumps, missed them and he could have been a foot out."
Onions then capped an impressive personal day, in which he had been handed the new-ball duties ahead of Stuart Broad, and built on Cook's swift work by trapping JP Duminy lbw, moments before the players left the field. At Centurion, Broad's first spell had wasted the hardness of the new ball, despite removing Graeme Smith for a duck, but here Onions set the tone with an opening burst of four overs for two runs.
"Throughout my short career I have generally taken the new ball, but obviously coming into a squad with Jimmy and Stuart, they are the opening bowlers and I have no problem with that, " he said. "I was very pleased to open today and it's a little bit of pressure which I thrive on."
If Onions can set the right tone again on the second day, England have a chance of restricting South Africa to a first-innings total of less than 300. Any such achievement would set up this Test match beautifully.
Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo