South Africa v England, 3rd Test, Cape Town, 5th day January 7, 2010

England save yet another thriller

England 273 (Prior 76, Morkel 5-75) and 296 for 9 (Bell 78, Collingwood 40) drew with South Africa 291 (Kallis 108, Anderson 5-63) and 447 for 7 declared (Smith 183, Amla 95)
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details

Ian Bell produced the innings of his life and Paul Collingwood battled for four-and-a-half hours in another masterclass of crease occupation, but England's ultimate match-saver was once again their No. 11, Graham Onions, who reprised his heroics in the first Test at Centurion by seeing off the final six deliveries of the match, bowled by Morne Morkel, to ensure that England will go to Johannesburg for next week's fourth and final Test with a 1-0 lead in the series and a chance to emulate the achievement of Michael Vaughan's men on their last tour of South Africa in 2004-05.

In a day of desperate tension that began with England uncomfortably placed on 132 for 3 and then deep in the mire after going to lunch on 179 for 5, Bell and Collingwood seemed to have drawn the sting of South Africa's attack in an epic and virtually strokeless sixth-wicket stand of 112 in 57 overs. But then, just when it seemed that the draw was inevitable, JP Duminy found the edge that had eluded all of his team-mates, but most particularly the magnificent but luckless Dale Steyn, to send Collingwood on his way for 40, and trigger a fraught final hour in which four wickets were chiselled away for 18 irrelevant runs, in 64 balls.

With eight men camped round the bat for the spinners, and gasps and appeals ringing out from the fielders and crowd alike, Matt Prior came and went for 4 from nine balls, brilliantly scooped by AB de Villiers at short leg to give Paul Harris his second wicket of an otherwise disappointing day's work. Stuart Broad survived one referral for a catch at silly point, but was then nailed on the glove by another Harris lifter, and sent on his way with 20 deliveries of the match remaining. By this stage Steyn, the only seamer to truly rise to the occasion, had been recalled at the Kelvin Grove End give the ever-scrutinised Bell a final test of his resolve, buzzing a full length on and around the top of off stump to keep both the slips and short leg in business.

But three deliveries after Broad's departure, it was Morne Morkel who made the critical incision, as Graeme Smith tossed him the ball for a final, furious two-over burst, and with his first delivery he found extra bounce on a perfect length outside off, for Bell to fence dejectedly to Smith himself at first slip. It had been a magnificent performance from Bell, a vindication of his selection as the sixth batsman in England's starting XI, and a continuation of the new-found confidence that he had shown since his breakthrough century on the decisive fourth day at Durban. But just when it seemed he was set to be the hero, he blinked and departed for 78 from 213 balls, and South Africa sensed a sensational turnaround.

But first they had to get through the unlikely tenth-wicket pairing of Onions and Swann, two men who had already shown their ability with the bat in this series, and now had 17 balls to survive. Onions memorably defied Makhaya Ntini for the final six deliveries at Centurion, and he showed he was primed for survival by riding a vicious fifth-ball lifter from Morkel inches short of gully. To add to the drama, Steyn then required physio treatment after seemingly tweaking his hamstring from the first ball of the penultimate over. Though he was fit to continue, he was destined to finish a luckless day with the under-rewarded figures of 2 for 74 in 35 overs.

And so everything, once again, came down to the final over. And just as at Centurion, it was Onions who was left with the job of blocking everything that came his way. Whereas Ntini's skiddy angles had been comparatively easy to negotiate, Morkel's height and pace provided a whole new examination of his grit and resolve, as he jabbed down coolly on a brace of probing yorkers, before hauling his bat inside the line of a snorting bouncer that tempted a desperate Smith to call for his final review in the hope of locating some glove. But one delivery later, Onions left well alone in the channel outside off, before turning to the pavilion and punching his fist in triumph.

It was a sensational escape, and incredibly England's third in eight Tests, after their Ashes-transforming performance at Cardiff, and last month's get-out at Centurion. And the common denominator in all three performances was Paul Collingwood, whose late dismissal meant he was destined yet again to be overlooked in the final analysis. But following his 74 from 245 balls at Cardiff and his 26 not out from 99 at Centurion, today's 40 from 188 once again had a case to be considered the most critical effort of the lot.

Despite the anxieties of the closing overs of the game, the destiny of the match was, to all intents and purposes, decided in a riveting first hour after lunch, in which Collingwood and Steyn pitted their wits against one another in a duel that already deserves to be recalled in the same breath as Allan Donald's legendary joust with Mike Atherton at Trent Bridge in 1998. Then, as now, both players recognised the singular importance of the moment, for the new ball had been claimed in the second over of the session, and one quick wicket would have chiselled an opening into England's lower-order. Then as now, neither player was willing to give an inch.

Make that a millimetre, for the defining feature of Steyn's ferocious six-over burst was the excruciating late swing that he located from a full length on off stump. Time and again he curled the ball at 90mph-plus around the edge of the edge of the bat, as Collingwood's only response was to play the line of off stump and not flinch a muscle. Finally, as the drinks break loomed and after perhaps a dozen of the closest shaves imaginable, Steyn's ardour began to dampen, and with the Kookaburra's short-lived shine beginning to fade, England sensed that they had weathered the storm.

At the other end, Bell was left with the easier, but no less critical, task of maintaining his concentration against the second-string fare of Morkel, whose leaping bounce off a good length was let down by a poor line that demanded no strokes, and Friedel de Wet, who underwent an injection in his back before the start of play, and was noticeably down on pace from the Steyn-alike who had hustled England to the brink on his debut at Centurion.

Smith soon had no choice but to turn to the lesser threats of Harris and Jacques Kallis, who kept the pressure on in a session that realised just 51 runs, but were unable to turn the screw on two well-established players. Harris in particular was a disappointment against a pair of batsmen whose only interest was survival, and was outperformed by the offspinner, Duminy, who entered the attack in the final over before tea, and instantly began probing Collingwood's defence with sharp turn towards his precious stumps.

Harris, however, did make the first breakthrough of the day for South Africa, from the 12th delivery of his morning spell, when the nightwatchman, James Anderson, under-edged a full-toss onto his boot and into the outstretched right hand of Ashwell Prince at leg gully, who had only moments earlier been waved into position by an alert Boucher. Anderson, however, had done his job, and by surviving for 45 minutes of the morning session, he had raised the frustration levels of his opponents, while at the same time convincing his team-mates in the dressing room that survival was not out of the question.

At 153 for 4, however, England were back in trouble, and their predicament could have got even worse from the very first ball that Collingwood faced, when Harris produced a fizzing lifter on off stump that flew into the hands of Kallis at slip. Though the umpire's finger went up in an instant, Collingwood was equally quick to call for the review, and sure enough the replays showed that his hip had caused the deflection. England were not great fans of UDRS at the start of the series. That reprieve may well have convinced them of its merits.

In a sign of things to come, Trott and Collingwood burrowed deep into their shells thereafter, with only seven runs coming from the next nine overs, and Collingwood himself took 21 deliveries to get off the mark. But with thoughts beginning to turn to the new ball, Smith recalled Steyn for another rapid burst, and once again his skiddy pace made the difference.

On 42, and after 99 balls of stoic resistance, Trott had no answer to a superb full-length seamer that zipped through his gate and sent his off stump cartwheeling. However, Collingwood, at the non-striker's end, watched and learned, and resolved to put bat on ball to every single Steyn delivery that bent back into his stumps. Somehow, he avoided nicking any that went the other way.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo