It's easy to forget, having been fed a diet of one-day cricket, that Test matches are capable of surviving on the slow burn for lengthy periods. After more than two sessions of slumber, the Centurion Test sparked into life on the second evening.

Makhaya Ntini led South Africa onto the field with his son alongside him, and the standing ovation he received had barely abated when he bowled his first ball. He had already been cheered to the rafters on two prior occasions - first when he came out to bat, and again when he got off the mark with a boundary to third man. Coupled with the emotion generated by Ntini's 100th Test appearance was the fact that England's openers, Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook, had to switch into batting mode after 153 overs in the field over two blisteringly hot days. Something was going to happen.

With the fourth ball of the innings Cook sparred outside off stump and AB de Villiers, possibly the best fielder in the world, spilled a head-high catch at third slip. It was travelling at some speed, but the gasp that went round the ground reflected the feeling that this was a rare aberration.

Not only did the error deny Ntini an emotional wicket, but it also meant every punter in the ground aged over 18 (sadly considerably less than on the opening day) had to wait a little longer to claim their free pint of lager that is on offer for whenever Ntini does open his account. Those who aren't returning tomorrow have missed their chance.

Maybe, though, all the fanfare surrounding Ntini didn't help the South Africans as they allowed England to score quicker than at any stage during the first two days. "I thought we did well to get to 420," Jacques Kallis said. "But then we were very disappointing this evening with the way we bowled. We gave away too many freebies and the guys were very disappointed with that. We bowled nowhere near how we should have done.

"England scoring at four-an-over was because we bowled really poorly rather than them being aggressive. If get our lines and lengths right I think you'll see scoring will be tough again."

Still, it was a passage of play where England's day could have gone very wrong. South Africa's tail-end resistance had not only added valuable runs, it also left the openers with a tough period to negotiate through to the close. Suddenly, with a new ball and fresh bowlers, the pitch started to play tricks on the mind. When Cook's off-stump technique was exposed once again, it was danger time for the visitors.

"I think that could have quite easily been a tricky session towards the end," Graham Onions said. "With those overs to face, we could have been four-down. But we batted really well and we've got a great opportunity to bat the whole day tomorrow.

Looking at the days' numbers - taking 6 for 156 and replying with 88 for 1 - the case can be made to suggest the honours went England's way. It took the bowlers a lot of sweat and toil to work through South Africa, but at no stage did the scoring rate run away from them. Actually, it slowed to a crawl during the afternoon session and it meant the final total was not out of reach, considering the volume of overs faced.

"Perhaps we could have been a little bit more consistent [with the ball], but I don't think we bowled badly at all," Onions added. "They were only going at 2.9 an over and we're going at 3.9 now. Wickets usually get a little bit worse as Test matches go on, and there's no reason why we can't bat really well tomorrow and get ourselves in a really strong position."

The mental resilience of Strauss is leading the way for England and continues to be mighty impressive. If this Test goes wrong he will face plenty of criticism for a combination of team selection and his decision to bowl, and watching South Africa reach 418 has left him with ground to make up. But the way he timed the ball during the final session showed a man focussed on the task in hand.

"He's a quality player and good players come through," Kallis said. "He had a fantastic tour last time [656 runs in 2004-05] but we had some plans that we didn't execute this evening which was disappointing. They have a lot of quality players in their side and certainly weren't going to lie down and not fight. We've got to be on top of our game if we want to come out on top in this series."