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

England fix their eyes on the summit

Summits are not reached at speed, but with small, steady steps until the goal is reached

In the land of one of the world's most famous mountains England have the opportunity to scale great heights at Newlands. However, summits are not reached at speed, but with small, steady steps until the goal is reached.

On a ground where South Africa have a formidable record it won't be easy to secure the series at the first attempt. The way the beleaguered home side kept fighting back on the opening day showed what England will have to overcome.

When England were last presented the opportunity to close out a series with a game in hand, they were hit by a severe attack of altitude sickness. Against Australia, at Headingley, they looked too far ahead to the ultimate prize rather than concentrating on how to get there. The result was being bowled out for 102 and the game was virtually done and dusted midway through the opening day.

Strauss's decision to bowl in this match won't have been influenced by Headingley events but, even though giving his attack first use of overcast conditions put his team under pressure to perform, it meant they could quickly get into the match. A first-over wicket was the perfect result when Jimmy Anderson produced a beauty to snare Prince, and if Graeme Swann had held Graeme Smith at second slip, Strauss would have been forgiven a cartwheel in celebration.

It's unlikely Swann's spill was a sign of nerves - he isn't that sort of cricketer - but how England would have wished Paul Collingwood could have been in his usual position instead of protecting his injured finger at fine leg. Crucially England weren't able to get to Jacques Kallis when the ball was still brand-new, because at 1 for 2 the pressure on South Africa would have been immense. As it was, 46 for 2 wasn't plain-sailing either, but there was a touch of breathing space to be had, especially with lunch just around the corner.

It was a brave call from Strauss to put South Africa in, even if the overhead conditions and drizzle suggested it was the correct one. He had already gone against convention once in this series at Centurion, where he was left regretting the call as the pitch did less than expected and his attack were below-par. On this occasion, barring a slightly wayward first spell from Graham Onions, the three fast bowlers used the conditions well and two wickets by lunch was the least they deserved.

"I'd say it was a very good decision to bowl first," said Anderson, who also removed Smith for his 150th Test scalp. "The conditions this morning were very bowler-friendly. In the warm-up, it was swinging a lot and with the rain around as well, it was a very easy choice for us to bowl.

"We're happy with the decision. They've played really well, Kallis played unbelievably well. We'll be happy with somewhere around 350 on a pitch which has turned out to be pretty good for batting and, I think, is just going to get better and better."

Of course, the perfect result when bowling first is to skittle the opposition for under 200, but everything has to go to plan and every catch has to be held. The second-best scenario is something akin to the one that England found at Durban, where the score is limited to reasonable proportions - last week it was 343 - before the side batting second piles up a huge total in response.

This latter route has the advantage of building scoreboard pressure, as England did by moving 231 ahead at Kingsmead, and removes any possibility of a bowling attack facing the prospect of the exertions of the follow-on. With hot weather, touching the 100-degree mark, forecast for later in the game, it isn't a notion to be excluded, especially with England operating a four-man unit.

"The decision to bowl first was not just on the morning conditions although that obviously played a big part," Anderson said. "The forecast for the rest of the week is pretty good, and we think days two and three will be pretty good to bat on.

"We hope we can try to get them out as cheaply as possible in the morning and make the most of batting. If the sun can get on it, it might very well get a bit quicker."

For England to reproduce a Durban-style performance will require the batsmen to replicate their efforts from last week. However, they would be wise not to think too far ahead when their chance comes. All such feats of mountaineering are much more achievable in small and measured steps.

Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo