South Africa v England, 3rd Test, Cape Town, 2nd day January 4, 2010

Nearly is not enough for England's batsmen

England had the chance to grasp the series on the second day at Newlands, but they loosened their grip

England had the chance to grasp the series on the second day at Newlands. It was nearly theirs for the taking, but nearly isn't close enough. Andrew Strauss wanted his side to show ruthlessness with South Africa down in the series, but they couldn't manage to keep their foot on the home side's throat. It hasn't been terminal to their hopes, but it has been frustrating.

When they blew away South Africa's four remaining wickets in 17 balls, the stage appeared set for them to dominate the day and take a stranglehold on the series. The cloud and drizzle of the opening day had dispersed to leave the clearest of Cape Town skies and everything said it was batting time. However, it didn't work out that way, and the balance of this match could not have been finer at the end.

Of all the performances that nearly came off it will be Ian Bell's that will provoke much of the debate. He had ducked and dived; played and missed; driven and cut for nearly three hours after coming to the crease with England tottering on 73 for 4. It was the moment for Bell to silence his doubters once and for all. If he'd followed his elegant Durban hundred with another here then claims of 'doing it easy' would have been thrown out the window.

Then it ended when he couldn't resist having a dip at his 121st delivery. The ball was asking to be put away, a wide long hop from Jacques Kallis, but instead of whistling to the cover boundary it ended up in JP Duminy's hands at point. Bell knew what he had done as he stood in the crease and looked skywards before hauling himself off.

But it wasn't a day to single out Bell. He wasn't the only one to succumb to South Africa's suffocating grip. Jonathan Trott had settled in nicely for 20 before chopping Dale Steyn into his stumps and Paul Collingwood was trapped playing across the line. The two batsmen who fell early, Strauss and Kevin Pietersen, erred in their shot selection as well. Getting out is no shame, but you don't want to offer the opposition a helping hand.

The application certainly wasn't lacking. England battled hard against the most disciplined South African bowling of the series, but it was that increased pressure that led to a few shots that will leave a bitter taste. Six batsmen reached 19, but so far Alastair Cook's 65 is the highest score of the innings, and that effort ended with a weak pull to midwicket straight after tea.

"It's frustrating, when you do all the hard work. But it's one of my shots, and I obviously didn't execute it very well today," Cook said. "A lack of pace is what has probably done for me. It's very disappointing, but you'll take 60-odd rather than less."

However, if one of the starts had been converted into three figures England, if not in full control, would have put South Africa on the back foot. "Obviously, we're slightly disappointed with the nature of a couple of the dismissals," Cook said. "But I think you've got to give credit to the way South Africa bowled. They didn't bowl many bad balls at all, kept us under constant pressure and when you're not scoring, it sometimes builds."

What the day has achieved, though, is to move the game forward. The draw is now almost out of the equation and the third innings will become vital. A straight shoot-out could suit England, who will be able to prey on the pressure South Africa face to keep the series alive. It's win or bust for the hosts.

Any lead England can muster will be precious and with Matt Prior at the crease that is still possible. He scored as freely as anyone managed all day - which wasn't very at all - as he moved to 52 off 96 balls. Once again, the long batting order is proving immensely valuable. "Lower-order runs really helped us in the summer against Australia," Cook said. "It helps any team if you can do that."

England, though, will have to do it the hard way. The third day is forecast to hit 100 degrees in the Cape which will be a draining experience for England's four-man attack. If they are able to keep the visitors in with a chance of winning this Test, and with it the series, the batsmen should be the ones buying all the post-match drinks.

Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo