South Africa v England, 4th Test, Johannesburg, 3rd day January 16, 2010

England on the ropes after South Africa declaration

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Close England 180 (Steyn 5-51) and 48 for 3 (Pietersen 9*, Collingwood 0*) trail South Africa 423 for 7 (Smith 105, Boucher 95) by 195 runs
Live scorecard and ball-by-ball details

Not even the loss of an average of 30 overs per day, nor the smokescreen of an ECB-led witch-hunt into the failings of the UDRS system, seem likely to save England from a crushing series-squaring defeat in the fourth and final Test at Johannesburg, after another day in which South Africa's superior technique with bat and ball overcame a series of interruptions for thunderstorms and bad light. When play was suspended with 20 overs of the third day still to be bowled, Kevin Pietersen and Paul Collingwood were clinging on desperately, having watched as three of their colleagues were blown away by a trio of pumped-up pace bowlers.

If England were lucky to escape with draws at Centurion and Cape Town, then at least it can be said that they were equal to the specific challenges that they faced on those pivotal final days. With a maximum of six sessions of this contest still to come, however, a third escape in four games would be the most incredible result of the lot, regardless of how many overs are gobbled up by the weather. With Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel proving once again that they are the pre-eminent new-ball pairing in world cricket, South Africa claimed two wickets in seven overs before a break for bad light, then returned in the gloaming to extract the vital scalp of Andrew Strauss for 22, trapped lbw to give Wayne Parnell a precious maiden Test wicket.

By the close, England had limped for 48 for 3, and were still a hefty 195 runs from asking South Africa to bat again. If that is to happen, it will require an innings of re-established brilliance from Pietersen to turn their current predicament around, because his solid unbeaten 9 from 20 balls was about as comfortable as any England batsman looked in the 13.2 overs before the close. Alastair Cook, the rock of their batting at Durban and Cape Town, lasted six deliveries before Morkel's steepling bounce found a defensive edge to first slip, while Jonathan Trott's shattered confidence could not be repaired by a brace of fours including a periscope deflection from a Morkel bouncer. The first delivery he received from Steyn was full, fast and swung away at the last moment, for AB de Villiers to snaffle the edge at third slip.

Strauss did his damnedest to dig in for the cause, swaying out of line from a lethal Steyn bouncer that left him on his backside, before riding a Morkel throat-ball that led to a sharp exchange of words between two men whose encounters have been somewhat one-sided in this series. But this time it was Parnell who prised the captain from the crease, finding a full length with his left-arm line, allied to an increase in confidence after a nervy three-over spell on the first day. In what turned out to be the penultimate over of the day, he skidded his ninth ball into Strauss's front pad, and after a review that was more in desperation that hope, Strauss was sent on his way for the final time this series.

If England made the day's conditions look especially tricky, then their struggles merely conferred an extra heap of plaudits onto an exceptionally paced performance from Mark Boucher, whose 95 from 118 balls was the driving force behind an impressively timed declaration. South Africa resumed on 208 for 2 overnight, a handy lead of 28, but from the outset they realised that quick accumulation was the order of the day if they were to guarantee themselves sufficient time to beat both the weather and the opposition. What they got was a masterclass in tempo-setting from Boucher, who brushed off the loss of three big wickets inside the first hour of the day to drive the innings along at nearly four runs an over.

In the course of his innings, Boucher became only the second specialist wicketkeeper after Adam Gilchrist to pass 5000 Test runs, and though he eventually fell five runs short of a richly deserved sixth Test century, he did his job and more. He added 120 for the fifth wicket in a 29-over stand with AB de Villiers (whose well-compiled 58 nevertheless contained a handful of moments that highlighted the current flaws in the review system) and 64 in 87 balls with the debutant Ryan McLaren, who rose above a nervy start to compile a useful 33 not out. A violent downpour forced an early tea, but when play resumed, South Africa racked up 41 runs in ten further overs, before Graeme Smith declared on 423 for 7, a lead of 243.

Boucher's innings began in the second hour of the day's play, after a spirited fightback had reduced South Africa to 235 for 5, a slightly precarious advantage of 55. Hashim Amla added only two runs to his overnight 73 before edging Stuart Broad to a diving Matt Prior behind the stumps, before Jacques Kallis flapped a surprise bouncer from Ryan Sidebottom to James Anderson in the gully, who hurtled forwards, stuck out his left hand, and clung onto a brilliant low chance.

With the new ball looming, England's seamers were finding plenty assistance from a still-lively track, but it was their golden-armed spinner, Swann, who made the next incision, as he continued his remarkable habit of striking early in a spell. This time he didn't even need a sighter, as JP Duminy, whom he also bagged for a first-ball duck at Cape Town, propped forward to a sharp offspinner that bounced and turned, and Collingwood at slip did the rest. Remarkably, Swann even repeated the feat three hours later, when Boucher top-edged the first delivery of his post-tea spell to a tumbling Trott at deep square leg.

Boucher, however, had broken England's resolve long before his departure, and the seeds of their discontent were sown in the course of his morning partnership with de Villiers. Though he batted with typical confidence, and even seemed to make light of a hamstring strain, de Villiers required a hefty dollop of good fortune to progress as far as he did. In the course of his innings, he successfully overturned two upheld appeals from Swann, the first of which - a gloved sweep-shot - appeared from later replays to be too close to call with a "high degree of confidence", as per the ICC's guidelines. De Villiers then survived an apparent inside-edge off Sidebottom shortly before lunch that England would surely have reviewed, had they not just wasted their final lifeline on a speculative and slightly desperate lbw appeal against Boucher.

In a further pair of ironies, the Sidebottom caught-behind appeal came only moments after the ECB announced that they had formally asked the ICC to reinstate the review that they had lost during the controversy involving Smith on the second morning. And what is more, Boucher would already have fallen lbw to Swann, and England would consequently still have had that extra chance up their sleeve, had England used their final lifeline in his previous over, when a seemingly innocuous appeal was shown by the Hawkeye replay to have been heading straight into leg stump.

By the close, however, all such gripes had been rendered utterly redundant, despite the best efforts of the ECB chairman, Giles Clarke, who toured the various media outlets at the Wanderers during the course of the day to make his views abundantly clear. The only thing that truly mattered, however, was the battle going on out in the middle. And in that regard, England are already closer to defeat than they ever appeared to be in Tests one and three.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo