South Africa v England, 4th Test, Johannesburg January 13, 2010

The Wanderers set for fitting finale

Regardless of the result in the final Test at the Wanderers, England will leave South Africa with more international victories than defeats. If anyone had offered that outcome two months ago they would have been greeted with bemused looks. However, such are the strides England have made on these shores that a drawn Test series would now be classed as a disappointment. That is almost extraordinary.

Two more wickets for South Africa and they would be the team unable to lose the series and if Centurion had gone their way it's difficult to imagine that England could have gained a foothold. But don't diminish the visitors' achievements here by suggesting South Africa have been unlucky - which are the vibes coming out of the home camp. As Australia found during the Ashes, looking the better team on paper doesn't give you a divine right to win.

They had 141 overs to bowl England out at Newlands and had them five down before the second new ball. Yet they couldn't close out the contest. Yes, they got very close as England faltered in the closing stages, but close doesn't win Test series. South Africa will baulk at the suggestion, but the choker tag is hovering again.

England have stood toe-to-toe with an opposition that likes to think they can bully teams at home and when South Africa dropped their guard at Durban they surged through. This England team is not packed with flair, especially with Kevin Pietersen struggling to recapture his form, but they more than make up for that in perseverance and tenacity. However, the depths of their resolve, highlighted by Graham Onions' repeated defiance, will have surprised even the most patriotic of supporters. The question is, have they used up their 'get of jail cards'?

Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower knew England's best chance in this series was to hang in and be ready to strike if the opportunity came. Thus the decision to play six batsmen, greeted with cries of defensiveness in some quarters, has paid off handsomely so far. It ensured a massive lead at Kingsmead, which set up the chance ambush South Africa, and then saved the third Test.

In those two games the sixth batsman, Ian Bell, has contributed 266 runs and England are on the verge of going through a series of four or more Tests with an unchanged team for the first time since 1885. However, although a long batting order has worked, only one of three first innings - the 574 for 9 in Durban - has been a commanding performance. Test matches can be saved in the last innings, but they are won in the first.

Although a draw at the Wanderers is unlikely unless it rains - which could also benefit England by making them play for victory - this could still be a series won through one dramatic collapse. England were on the receiving end of such a result last year in West Indies when Jerome Taylor and Sulieman Benn skittled them for 51 in Jamaica. West Indies spent the next three Tests hanging on, but hang on they did.

With England taking the lead in the second Test it left South Africa needing back-to-back wins to claim the series and that chance disappeared when Onions survived Morne Morkel's final over in Cape Town. A drawn series would now be a relief for Graeme Smith and Mickey Arthur, but even that shouldn't paper over the cracks. The team has gone backwards and there are also signs of confusion within the set-up with the messy situation surrounding Imran Tahir's failed call-up.

South Africa are carrying two batsmen, Ashwell Prince and JP Duminy, have struggled to find a first-change bowler and the frontline spinner can't consistently pitch the ball. There may be only one change for Johannesburg with Wayne Parnell, the talented left-arm seamer, replacing the injured Friedel de Wet, but others will be nervous ahead of the India tour next month. There are concerns that Parnell isn't ready, but now is as good a time as any to find out. He swings the ball at pace and this is a Test to win not draw.

Looking at the bigger picture, which it is always wise to do in the current climate, this series has done much for Test cricket as has the concurrent contest between Australia and Pakistan. There is a lesson here for administrators. Pitch the best teams against each other and the cricket will look after itself. The recent matches in Sydney and Cape Town needed no gimmicks to spice them up.

Compare that to the soporific triangular one-day tournament going on in Bangladesh where the action has been monotonously dull. Whenever a game in this series has threatened to head towards the more mundane something has sparked into life whether it be a spell of bowling, a piece of fielding or a smidgen of controversy.

The crowds have also been good, which is no small matter in this part of the world. The Wanderers will struggle to match those numbers, people in Gauteng have been overdosed in cricket in recent months, but hopefully they have saved some rand for this match. It's the last international of the South African home season. It shouldn't let anyone down.

Andrew McGlashan is assistant editor of Cricinfo