South Africa came into this Test at England's favourite ground, and with a history of failing to build on series leads, but after bowling the home side out for 231 are well on the way to their ultimate goal. The absence of Dale Steyn has so far proved no handicap as his replacement, Andre Nel, fired South Africa into life with three wickets and was well supported by Jacques Kallis and Makhaya Ntini.
Andrew Flintoff gave England a late boost when he removed Graeme Smith in very similar style to the last Test, edging an off-stump delivery low to first slip. South Africa, though, have an in-form batting line-up and know that one collective effort over the next day or so can put this series to bed. England tried to counter their failure to post a decent first innings at Headingley by packing the batting, but Paul Collingwood's recall at No. 6 and Tim Ambrose's demotion to No. 8 had little effect.
Only two batsmen passed fifty, Alastair Cook with 76 and Ian Bell with 50, but even their innings were examples of England's current failings. Both did the hard work on a relatively comfortable surface before wasting the chance to secure the three-figure innings that was needed. Another poor performance was summed up by the final two wickets, both run out as Flintoff tried to retain the strike with Monty Panesar's attempt at a second was embarrassingly forlorn.
It's easy to dwell on England's failings, but this was another highly satisfying day for Smith, who lost the toss for the first time in the series and admitted he would like to have batted. There was a concern that without Steyn his attack would lack the pitch-up option, but the four quicks responded well on a surface far better than a total of 231 suggests. Morne Morkel was unlucky to end wicketless, but Kallis showed his value as a fourth seamer with the wickets of Kevin Pietersen and Collingwood. It was the five-man attack England dream of.
Nel's return to the Test arena was always unlikely to be quiet affair. He benefited from an ounce of luck, but provided plenty of hostility. It was an innocuous ball which started England's demise, which Andrew Strauss nudged off his hip, but in the process the right foot went into the base of middle stump. Next delivery Michael Vaughan, with just 23 runs in the series, was drawn onto the front foot as the ball zipped past the edge. Mark Boucher barely appealed, but Nel and the slips went up and so did Aleem Dar's finger. Vaughan could hardly believe it, but his troubled times continued.
Pietersen bristled with intent early on, but got himself in a tangle against Kallis when he tried to flick him from outside off through the leg side. He was struck in line with off stump and the ball ballooned to Ashwell Prince at point. Steve Davis gave Pietersen out and signalled that it was for the catch. Pietersen looked bemused, and replays showed there wasn't an edge, but that the lbw shout was pretty adjacent.
Cook was England's main provider, but it was further frustration that he failed to build on another half-century. At Lord's and Headingley he reached the 60s and here made it has far as 76 before edging Nel. He never looked entirely comfortable during his stay, especially against Morkel's first spell when he was regularly beaten outside off. However, when the bowlers dropped short Cook pounced, twice pulling Nel through wicket and also cutting strongly.
He and Bell were stabilising the innings following the pre-lunch wobble with a fourth-wicket stand of 62, before Nel's third invention handed the momentum back to South Africa. Coming around the wicket, he brought an indeterminate poke from Cook, who was given a bit of send-off - although Nel will no doubt blame 'Gunther'. The pressure was on the returning Collingwood who took half an hour to open his account and it was of little surprise when he edged Kallis to first slip 20 minutes before tea. It was a shot that showed his complete lack of form, trying to turn a good length ball on off stump through midwicket. Ntini, who was the least impressive of the attack, then found Bell's outside edge in the penultimate over before the break.
Flintoff and Ambrose battled hard after tea, but didn't really push the innings on, more content to survive against Ntini and Paul Harris. This would have been fine if they'd been able to cash in, but once wickets started to fall again little progress had been made. Kallis sneaked in with his third to break a stand of 39 in 19 overs and, although Flintoff hinted at something memorable, the end of the innings summed up the overall display. South Africa have let such positions of strength slip before, but it would be a brave person who backs England from here.