With three men around the bat, Graeme Swann turning it square on a crumbling pitch and two lower-middle order batsmen fighting to survive, it could have been the final, deciding session of a Test match. A sight so pleasing to a cricket connoisseur's eye is not often on show in one-day cricket. It's the format for flat pitches and high run-chases, where the batsmen's fluency and the bowler's accuracy are usually the two elements of competition.

It's rare that there is, in the space and time that a one-day match allows, an innings can be built from the ground up as a batsman is tested against bowlers baying for blood on a pitch that is offering something for them to bait with. It's rare that those who use spin, not merely slower bowling on helpful tracks, and reverse swing to trap their prey are able to show the beauty of their trade in those 100 overs that make up the ODI. Rare things are always valuable, but just how valuable is only apparent when they are on display.

The Chennai pitch was the stage for such a performance. It was dry, crusty and rough, as unwelcoming for batsmen as a cold, sniping wind on a frosty day. There would be turn - that was evident from ball one when Robin Peterson, whose ability to spin the ball is often laughed at in his home country - did just that. There would be reverse swing, as James Anderson, searching for redemption after the totals England conceded in their first three matches, showed with such aplomb. What there wouldn't be were easy runs and that meant a low-scoring tussle, which produced a set of skills that don't often have to be on display in this format.

"There was a lot on offer for bowlers: reverse swing, spin, bounce. It was a bowler's day," Graeme Smith said. Andrew Strauss and the two batsmen who followed him back to the changeroom, Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell, were walking illustrations of that. Strauss fell trying to play a glory shot, having faced just three balls before that. Had he waited a little before doing that he would have seen that, in this case, the best form of attack was defence.

Pietersen's problems against left-arm spin stem from things beyond the pitch, but Bell went the same route. Peterson's catch off his own bowling was the work of an adrenaline-fuelled man at the peak of his confidence, but Bell's mistimed attempt at a drive was not the kind of shot that would enable success on this surface. Ravi Bopara and Jonathan Trott's innings were better examples of how to craft a knock on a tricky surface.

Timing and placement were the building blocks of their strokes. Both of them scored slightly more on the leg side, with deft flicks and guides around the corner, and although they unleashed a few cuts and Bopara had one, glorious cover-drive, most of their runs came from nudges, pushes and playing with soft hands. Patience was their stand-out characteristic, as runs had to be worked for and did not just present themselves. "On a flat pitch we would have looked to score a run a ball, but that would have been really difficult on this pitch and you have to realise that early doors," Bopara said.

Once the pair had left, the rest of the England batsman were incapable of transcending the conditions. Inconsistent bounce, which made Morne Morkel dangerous, and turn, which Imran Tahir manipulated like putty in his hands to bowl googly after googly, saw England exit for a score that was, despite evidence to the contrary from South Africa, chaseable. Not easily chaseable, but with more of the Bopara-like approach, patiently chaseable.

The first 15 overs of South Africa's reply may even have vindicated that statement, when the sheer numbers are taken into account. A third of the target had been ticked off, at 68 for 1, and with time on their side, South Africa should have, from a purely statistical perspective, cantered home. The action spun a different tale, however. Graeme Swann, who was spinning as incessantly as a nauseating ride at an amusement park, had Smith feeling like he was on one. The South Africa captain was unsettled and scratchy and it was only a matter of time before he gave way.

He opened a crack, the size of which Stuart Broad, who was bowling tight lines, wicket to wicket, could widen, as he did with the dismissal of Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis. Swann was the architect and Yardy and Pietersen the apprentices but it was Anderson who was the master. He broke the back of the South African middle-order by twisting it out of joint as it couldn't cope with his swing. "They bowled really well with the reverse swing," Smith said. "There are many batters who have mastered the art of playing that."

Having batted on the pitch first and seeing the runs dry up, Strauss knew that that would be the way to go. "There was a lot of turn and bounce there. You need to ask questions of the batsmen and all credit to the bowlers for being able to do that for us. It's tough for the tailenders to come in when the ball is reversing or spinning." It was so tough that South Africa lost 7 for 41, compared to England's 6 for 58.

Although Strauss said the pitch, "broke up a bit too much," he stopped short of criticising it, because there probably wasn't much to fault it for. It didn't ask the same questions as one-day surfaces usually do, but difference should not be scorned at. It kept the intrigue of captaincy alive as bowlers were rotated quickly and it produced a thriller which tested areas of the game that are not usually up for scrutiny in such a match. As Strauss put it, these kind of pitches, "sometimes make for good, entertaining cricket."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent