Return of the killer instinct

It has taken them a Test and a half to shake off their end-of-season torpor, and for fretful periods both here and at Port Elizabeth, they have looked so jittery one half-expected it to be the Australians camping out in the opposition dressing-room. But England's killer instinct is back, and no mistake.

A day of remorseless accumulation and a bold late declaration has left a battered-and-bruised South Africa needing the little matter of 378 to win. Stranger things have happened - most of them in the course of the past four days - but after a second chastising day in the field, South Africa do not look like a side capable of pulling off the fourth-highest run-chase of all time.

The manner in which England have turned this match around has been nothing short of sensational. Whether or not they wrap up the game tomorrow is immaterial - they have fought back from their most unpromising situation of the year, and by nipping out the pivotal figure of Graeme Smith in a hostile late half-hour, they have all but ensured that their proud unbeaten record will remain intact at least until the start of 2005. Had Geraint Jones not spoilt his red-letter day with a rare meaningful lapse behind the stumps, to reprieve Herschelle Gibbs, England would have taken an even bigger step towards their ninth Test victory in a row.

Nothing can be taken for granted in this game. South Africa successfully chased 340 to beat Australia here in 2001-02, a performance that owed much to a brilliant century from that man Gibbs, while England themselves know the dangers inherent in pitches that settle down after a mischievous first few days - that same winter at Christchurch, Nathan Astle gave England the shock of their lives by clubbing 222 from 151 balls as New Zealand threatened to chase 550 in the fourth innings, after being bowled out for 147 first time around.

That may have been a once-in-a-lifetime innings from Astle, but there have been distinct parallels between the two matches. On that occasion, Nasser Hussain scored a brilliant solo century to hold England's first innings together, just as Jacques Kallis did for South Africa here on Monday, while England's revival in the second innings was built around a vital sixth-wicket stand between two familiar faces - Graham Thorpe and Andrew Flintoff.

There were rather more runs on offer that day - Thorpe made an even 200, which was briefly the third-fastest of all time, while Flintoff chipped in with 137, his maiden Test century - but today's stand was every bit as crucial. Just as Ray Jennings had predicted amid all his psychobabble on Tuesday evening, England's batsmen were vulnerable in their first 20 to 30 balls. When Thorpe and Flintoff came together this morning, England had lost three big wickets in quick succession, and with a lead of just 121, they were a couple of quick strides away from squandering all the good work that Strauss and Trescothick had put in during yesterday's run-fest.

But right from the early moments of his innings, Thorpe looked ready for business. After a cautious start he hustled into the twenties with a flurry of boundaries and a series of trademark nudge-and-scampers, and as Flintoff found his range at the other end, England inched their way out of immediate danger, and up towards the realms of respectability. This was Thorpe's 16th Test century in 95 matches, but his fifth in 17 since his emotional return to international cricket, against South Africa at The Oval in 2003. On that occasion, he marked his comeback with a brilliant match-turning hundred in a game that was much like this in character - full of twists and turns and, ultimately, South African heartbreak.

But Thorpe's other contributions have been equally crucial. A glorious marshalling of the tail at Bridgetown to set up England's series-clinching win in the Caribbean; a relentless run-chase at Trent Bridge, where he and Ashley Giles condemned Chris Cairns to defeat in his final Test; and a vital century stand with Andrew Strauss against West Indies at Old Trafford, where England conceded a first-innings lead but turned the match around with the ball. Form-wise, he was one of England's major concerns in the run-in to this series, but the way he drank from the fount of experience today was a succinct vindication of the practice-lite approach.

So long as Thorpe remained, it didn't matter greatly what style England adopted at the other end, and after playing himself in with his now-customary exaggerated watchfulness, Flintoff worked off his anchor-man with the sort of innings that exasperates his fans when it goes wrong, but drives the fielding side to distraction when it pays off. Makhaya Ntini bowled an heroic spell, beating Flintoff's outside edge at will, only to be deposited over Hashim Amla's head at midwicket twice in two overs, and when Jones used the top-edge to such good effect that South Africa were forced to post a long-stop, it was clear that every semblance of ascendancy had been ripped from their grasp.

By the close, the urgency and the menace had returned to England's fielding performance, and the fire in Steve Harmison's belly had been stoked at long last. South Africa face a test of their mettle on the final day, as they contemplate how on earth, after bundling England out for 139 on the first day, it has come to this.

Andrew Miller is assistant editor of Cricinfo. He will be following the England team throughout the Test series in South Africa.