Hashim Amla's fifth Test hundred guided South Africa safely to a draw on the fifth and final day at Lord's. Two days ago, it seemed unlikely the visitors scrap it out into the fifth, yet it was England - the team who so dominated the first three days - who trudged off wearily 75 minutes after tea. South Africa may not have won, but they will take heart from their characteristically dogged performance with the second Test only four days away.
Remarkably, this was the sixth draw in as many Tests at Lord's. Indeed, the home of cricket hasn't witnessed a win since Australia's 239-run win in the 2005 Ashes, and barring a spectacular collapse by South Africa, it was unlikely that the trend would be broken today by Michael Vaughan's men. This isn't to discredit a wholehearted bowling performance, more to emphasise the benign surface that Lord's has produced over the last few years. In truth, they needed an Andrew Flintoff, and shortly after play his name was included in England's 12-man squad for Headingley.
Amla and Neil McKenzie deadened the match in the morning session, surviving unscathed at lunch, though by no means did England simply go through the motions. They persisted in a war of bouncers against Amla, attacking his supposed weakness; James Anderson, in particular, cranked up impressive pace from the Pavilion End, and fired in bumper after bumper to try and unsettle Amla. Yet not even an extraordinary leg-side field reminiscent of Bodyline could waver Amla's concentration, as he ducked, weaved and evaded all Anderson threw at him. Anything on his legs was duly whipped through midwicket with subcontinental elasticity. With Amla nudging and nurdling on a lifeless pitch, this was more Lahore than Lord's.
Meanwhile, McKenzie continued where he left off last night, showing remarkable resolve as he notched up his 400th ball faced. Such were England's attacking fields that anything wide could be easily dispatched, as was the case when Stuart Broad offered McKenzie a gift outside his off stump that was languidly back-cut.
Not even the introduction of Monty Panesar could turn England's fortunes for the better.
In fact, Panesar bowled the first over of the day to McKenzie, and could well have had him caught at short-leg, the ball narrowly evading his bat. Yet thereafter, for all his guile and occasional turn, Panesar was rarely a threat - unsurprisingly given the pitch's lack of bounce. Only occasionally did the odd ball leap alarmingly, and Amla's concentration failed him for once when he drove loosely at a wider spinning delivery. The very next ball was thumped through cover for four, before Amla nurtured more runs through midwicket to bring up the pair's hundred partnership from 250 balls, and his own cultured fifty from 116 balls. The match was subsiding into a draw.
Or was it? England were given cause for brief hope just after lunch when Anderson, visibly tiring in the field, offered McKenzie a wide to which he slashed behind to Tim Ambrose. In strode the ominous figure of Jacques Kallis, who made just 7 in the first innings, and again he struggled to pick up England's seamers, driving streakily just wide of Alastair Cook in the gully. Panesar troubled him in the next over, too, with one that finally spat up off a length, but Kallis responded in commanding style to pull him over midwicket. The authority he showed in one stroke eluded him entirely a few overs later, however.
Sidebottom chose this moment to produce his best ball of the match to South Africa's best batsman. Appearing to angle across Kallis, it bent back markedly on the right-hander to rip out his middle stump. South Africa were effectively 11 for 3, and the excitement of the situation chivvied Panesar into producing a fine over to the new batsman, Ashwell Prince. Two very close shouts for lbw were turned down by Daryl Harper, while Prince insisted on padding up to viciously-spun balls turning out of the rough.
As South Africa took the lead, Amla visibly settled, working twos through midwicket and occasionally pouncing the odd boundary off any strays that England offered. His was a controlled, disciplined innings - the type none of his team-mates, with the exception of Prince, could muster in the first innings; the like of which South Africa will need at Headingley, too. A back-cut for four brought up his hundred from 231 balls, and the match was as good as saved.
Farce briefly threatened to scuff the shine off South Africa's gutsy effort when the umpires halted play for bad light - in near-bright sunshine. And a patient crowd were then victim to watching Alastair Cook's time-stalling offbreaks for an over, before common sense prevailed and an exhausted Graeme Smith gave the thumbs up to Michael Vaughan from the balcony. The match might have petered to a draw, but both sides have given a tempting glimpse into the battles that lie ahead in the final three Tests.