A contest crying out for a hundred
If the Durban weather plays ball over the next three days - and sadly that is anything but certain - this match has the makings of an extremely compelling contest. Each time one side has seemingly grabbed the advantage, the other has evened the scales, never better illustrated than by the cameo nature of the batting so far in this game.
Batsmen have threatened to dominate, but then have been cut off either by a good ball or poor judgment, and that has made for engrossing viewing. It started with the dual efforts of Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis, who thwarted a hostile new ball in tough conditions before succumbing meekly after tea; it continued with AB de Villiers' punchy counter-attack and Mark Boucher's bustle on the second morning, then Dale Steyn's tail-end hitting which lifted South Africa to 343.
England continued in the same vain with Andrew Strauss looking in prime form. He so often does these days, but he failed to build on an aggressive 49-ball half-century - the fastest of his career - when he was dramatically bowled by Morne Morkel to be left with one stump standing. Although Strauss's innings ended too early for England's liking, it was a vital response from the captain after the frustrations of South Africa's last-wicket stand of 58 between Steyn and Makhaya Ntini
Strauss and Steyn are separated in batting talent by almost the full length of the order; a tailender and an opener, one whose runs are a bonus against one who is expected to lead the scoring. But they both played equally valuable roles for their sides. Without Steyn, South Africa would have been dismissed for under 300 and without Strauss's counter-attack the home side would have had the chance to build on that lower-order boost.
There is nothing better for a team than to be boosted by a tailender who bats above his means, not least because of the frustration it brings to the fielding unit. It's far better for an innings to end with a bang rather than a whimper. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, there is the impetus that a positive opening batsman can bring when the opposition have hoped to make inroads with the new ball. Michael Slater and Matthew Hayden were masters of it, Virender Sehwag has taken the art to new levels and Strauss briefly managed a passing impression of them all.
"I came out of the shower, and he was already on 30, and I don't take that long in the shower," said Graeme Swann. "It's great to see him go out there and play shots from the word go. He's very disappointed to have only made 50-odd and lose his wicket after tea, to a very good ball."
"We didn't sit down and say 'let's go all guns blazing' to get back on top," he added. "But it was important that we did that, because it's wrestled straight back the initiative that South Africa have taken from us."
Strauss has developed into one of the premier opening batsmen in the world and is finishing 2009 in the same positive form he has shown throughout the year. His innings included three fours in four balls off the struggling Ntini, and was Marcus Trescothick-like in its impact. That was a role he tried to perform in Australia in 2006-07, when Trescothick pulled out of the tour, but he mislaid his disciplines in his quest for aggression, and that played a part in his career-threatening dip in form. The latest version of Strauss can play in variety of guises, however. He also took the pressure off Alastair Cook, who was able to concentrate on survival in his battle for form.
It looked for all the world as though Strauss would be the batsman who would build on his start, but Morkel has caused him problems throughout the tour - having him caught behind in the second innings at Centurion from round the wicket - and ended his stay via a thin inside-edge. In 16 balls Strauss faced against Ntini he scored 24 runs, but the 21 deliveries from Morkel produced just 11 and four of those came from an outside edge through gully which shows the difficulties he posed.
It also means that the wait for a substantial innings in this match goes on, but the bowlers have managed to hold sway. This contest is crying out for a hundred. It could prove to be a matchwinner.
Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo