South Africa v England, 3rd Test, Cape Town, 1st day January 3, 2010

Kallis quashes Durban demons

Had Graeme Smith had been caught off Graham Onions' first ball of the match, South Africa's day could have unravelled amid memories of their Durban demise

This was a tough day for South Africa before a ball was even bowled. Makhaya Ntini's long and successful international career was, to all intents and purposes, brought to an end through his omission from the final XI, and when Ashwell Prince fell in the first over, the team's raw nerves were audibly jangling. Had Graeme Smith had been caught off Graham Onions' first ball of the match, their day could have unravelled amid memories of their Durban demise.

South Africa knew that they were likely to face a breaking point during this match, a moment in which their series hopes could have been permanently extinguished. They probably didn't expect it to come so early. At the end of an emotional day, they have managed to keep themselves alive at 279 for 6. For that their huge thanks must go to Jacques Kallis who, for the umpteenth time in his career, showed why he is South Africa's leading batsman.

Kallis adores playing at Newlands, his home ground, where he now averages 70.72 with six hundreds, and this was the third consecutive match in which he has registered three figures against England. He showed the technique to survive on a surface that offered something for the quicks throughout, but he was always in a position to attack when the bad ball came along. When he eventually joins the retirement list, he will leave a void as sizeable as any of the greats in the game.

The excellence of his unbeaten 108 was also highlighted by the performances of his middle-order colleagues. The fortunes of Kallis and JP Duminy, another home-town player, couldn't be more polarised at the moment. Duminy's troubled times continued when he pushed forward tentatively at his first ball from Graeme Swann and edged behind. It was a good delivery from Swann, but the lack of a full stride from Duminy telegraphed his lack of confidence.

Contrast that with the clear, strong and precise footwork of Kallis, who always seemed to be in the right position for any given shot, and even if he was caught slightly off guard, he had the skill to adjust to any vagaries off the surface. "He's very focused when he bats and very difficult to bowl at," said Jimmy Anderson. "The lateness that he plays the ball is incredible - and even when the ball is reversing he can pick it, which makes it even harder."

Duminy, though, can partly be excused his failure because he is clearly a batsman in a lean trot. The same can't be said of AB de Villiers, who has looked in prime touch throughout this series without yet building on his starts. He and Kallis had steadied South Africa's innings from an uncertain 51 for 3 after Smith edged behind shortly after lunch.

De Villiers was beginning to milk Swann and for once the offspinner was left needing to come up with some answers, and quickly. Or at least that should have been the case. Instead de Villiers chipped the softest of catches to midwicket and England could hardly believe their luck.

After trudging off, shaking his head disbelievingly, de Villiers disappeared into the dressing room and didn't reappear for about half an hour. When he eventually emerged, coach Mickey Arthur appeared to make some feelings quite clear. This is a time when South Africa really need their senior batsmen to come to the fore.

Kallis, though, is exempt from such criticism, and it was the partnership of 89 with his good friend Mark Boucher that brought South Africa back from the brink. There is a strong bond between the pair. "He's my next door neighbour so I have to enjoy him," Boucher joked.

"We are good friends off the field and we know each other's games and what makes each other tick. Sometimes we don't even have to say anything in the middle and you feel comfortable batting with him in that bubble he gets into. I've had a few important partnerships with him and today was another one."

Boucher, being a typically pugnacious wicketkeeper, decided to confront South Africa's predicament with aggression. This was particularly evident in his attitude towards Swann, whom he took for three consecutive boundaries, to back up his team's pre-match talk of taking on England's leading bowler.

"I enjoy batting with Jacques and I know he is safe at the other end," said Boucher. "I think we have played enough Tests between the two of us to know that when a side is under pressure, you sometimes need to counterattack. On that sort of wicket we felt the best way to play it was to try and put the pressure back on them, and chance our arm a bit.

"It came off to certain extent, I would have liked to have carried on but you can't always get what you want. We could have been 200 all out but are 270-odd for 6, and it's even from our perspective."

For Kallis this series is showing eerie comparisons to the 2004-05 campaign in which he scored three hundreds, yet South Africa still lost. The outcome of this series is still far from clear, but it would be galling for Kallis if his personal achievements didn't lead to team success.

"He's scored over 10,000 runs, so you expect him to do it more often than not," Boucher said. "The guys who are in form need to carry the side while others are out of form. He's playing really well at the moment and he's hungry for runs. A hungry Jacques Kallis is always a dangerous Jacques Kallis for the opposition."

Kallis, though, surely wouldn't mind if a few of his team-mates started to feast on the England bowling with a similar appetite.

Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo