TWO late wickets from medium-pacer Andrew Flintoff restored England's hopes of winning the third Test at Kingsmead on Wednesday after opener Gary Kirsten had scored a record-breaking century to guide South Africa towards safety.
The beefy all-rounder struck six overs before the close when he had Daryll Cullinan caught behind for 16 and followed it up in his next over with the big scalp of South African captain Hansie Cronje (1), also caught behind.
Before that, Kirsten replied to the huge pressure on him to keep his place in the team by scoring the sweetest of centuries to take South Africa to 242 for two half-an-hour before the close, allowing home fans to feel confident about their chances of saving the game.
Kirsten's century was his 10th at Test level and saw him edge out Cullinan (9) in the race to beat Dudley Nourse's long-standing record for the most by a South African. Given the circumstances, South Africa battling to save the game after being forced to follow-on and the batsman playing for his long-term career, the innings was remarkably fluent. The hundred came off 280 balls and took 379 minutes, including eight fours.
But then Flintoff, who had looked like just another tubby seamer before that, handed the English some much-needed encouragement on a long, hot day and some late scares for the South African changeroom. Cullinan was aghast as he edged his cut at a wide delivery, while Cronje's notorious slow-motion footwork and an unnecessarily aggressive shot outside off saw him suffer a similar fate.
Play had begun at 9.30am on a hot, sunny morning and Andy Caddick once again made use of the bounce in the Kingsmead pitch to dismiss Herschelle Gibbs (26) in the ninth over of the day, but Kirsten and Jacques Kallis then made merry and batted on for most of the rest of the day.
Kirsten, given the calls for his head seemingly coming from all quarters, did not bat like a man with his head in the noose. He put a testing first hour behind him, when potential catches just evaded the fielders, and, as his confidence increased, he produced some cover drives any left-hander would have been proud of and even danced down the pitch a couple of times to loft spinner Phil Tufnell for boundaries.
Once the historic landmark was duly achieved, he put his head down again and it was back to work as he, most importantly, survived through to the close on 126 not out. It has been a mammoth eight-hour effort already - England assistant coach Bob Cottam praising it as "one of the great knocks, the way he dug in, it was a top-class effort" - but he will need to occupy the crease for a while longer if South Africa and their 1-0 series lead are not to be buried on the final day.
The home side are effectively 41 for four and if the rest of the batsmen cave in the way Cullinan and Cronje did in the late stages of the fourth day, England are bound to sweep to victory and will become a very difficult side to beat thereafter.
Kallis played with increasing authority in a 152-run second-wicket partnership, a record for South Africa at Kingsmead, with Kirsten and, having reached 69, was looking set for greater things, when Darren Gough, armed with the second new ball, managed to induce an edge with a fairly ordinary delivery.
Cullinan and Kirsten then put on 49 in 98 minutes, before the Gauteng strokeplayer, having scored 16 off 49 balls, finally had to have a go. Mark Boucher, sent in as nightwatchman, had to spend an important 23 minutes at the crease as he and Kirsten restored a little bit of South Africa's good cheer before the close.
With Kirsten's brilliant century to enthuse about, most of the 7200 spectators at Kingsmead yesterday will be eager to see if the newly-restored hero can complete the job as he tries to deny England for another day.