Having rebounded superbly with the ball, claiming England’s last seven wickets for 118 runs to bowl them out for 385, Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla ensured there were no further alarms after the early loss of Alviro Petersen for a duck as they batted South Africa through to the close.
Both batsmen looked as solid as concrete against a probing English attack that was eventually backing off and setting defensive fields. Smith, playing his 100th Test, finished the day on 37 not out off 118 balls, with four fours, while Amla was on 47 not out, off 97 deliveries, with six fours.
South Africa’s bowlers had given little evidence of their passion and desire on the first day, when Alastair Cook cruised to a century and took England to 267 for three at the close of play.
But when Vernon Philander began troubling Cook from the outset, it was clear that England’s batsmen would not have nearly as easy a ride as on the first day.
It was Dale Steyn who sparked the South African comeback when he removed Cook for 115 and Ravi Bopara for a duck in successive overs.
Cook’s footwork was still sluggish when he went hard at a drive off Steyn and, when the ball swung back in nicely, it found the inside edge and cannoned into the stumps. The left-hander had played many fine strokes in collecting 11 fours and a six (his leaves were also impressive!) and his 295-ball innings was a mighty effort to give England an early head-start in the highly-anticipated series.
The unfortunate Bopara, still trying to cement his place in the side, tried to pull out of a hook shot at the fired-up Steyn, but withdrew the bat too late, the edge going through to wicketkeeper AB de Villiers.
Philander had been the perfect foil at the other end, just eight runs coming from the five overs he bowled at the start of the day, and he was unlucky not to get the reward for beating the bat several times. The introduction of Jacques Kallis saw the pressure on England increase if nothing else, as the great all-rounder’s first four overs were all maidens and he picked up the key wicket of Ian Bell (13).
Bell, seeing the ball swinging away nicely, was then bemused as he left a delivery which swung in and just clipped the off-bail, causing it to topple and the in-form 30-year-old was bowled.
Matt Prior’s wicket was the one that really mattered though.
Even though South Africa were on top at lunch, leggie Imran Tahir spinning out Tim Bresnan, who dragged the ball into his own stumps, for eight to leave England on 326 for seven, Prior prospered in the afternoon.
South Africa’s bowlers were guilty of losing a bit of focus and there were enough bad balls for Prior to hammer nine fours and breeze to 60 off 90 balls. Early on he had been like a man stumbling in the dark without a lamp, and England’s innings could have been truly wrecked if a couple of half-chances had been taken.
He was reprieved when Petersen made a great save in the slips but couldn’t throw down the stumps with both batsmen in the middle of the wicket, and Jacques Rudolph dropped a sharp catch, lunging low to his right in the gully, off Morne Morkel when Prior had 17.
South Africa will rue those lapses, but will be happy they limited the dangerous Stuart Broad to just 16 as he was bowled by a tremendous Philander delivery that he had little hope of keeping out – from over the wicket, the ball came back miles to bowl the left-hander through the gate – and that Morkel wrapped up the innings with two wickets in the 126th over.
Prior’s pugnacious innings off 60 off 90 balls came to an end when he edged an expansive drive away from his body to De Villiers, and Jimmy Anderson (2) joined him back in the pavilion four balls later when he flapped at a leg-side, short-pitched delivery from Morkel, the catch behind giving the wicketkeeper five in the innings.
Morkel did not have the best of days with the ball, overdoing the short delivery, but his final figures of 4-72 were a just reward for his efforts on the first day.
Steyn had, crucially, recaptured his mojo in the morning, but his poor spell after lunch left him with figures of 2-99 in 30 overs. Kallis was also superb and his figures of 2-38 in 19 overs underestimate his value, his wickets being the key ones of Bell and Kevin Pietersen, and both at crucial times.
Philander again worked well in partnership with Steyn (perhaps they should have been used together more on the first day) and deserved better figures than 1-79 in 27 overs.
England had 11 overs to strike back with the new ball before tea and Anderson managed to get his 10th ball to go like a boomerang, swinging back into Petersen and hitting him on the back leg to trap him lbw for a duck.
But Amla was a grimly determined Smith’s able co-pilot as they negotiated the best England could throw at them, and a 106-minute rain delay straight after tea, to ensure South Africa go into the third day on even terms.