Fearless Swann rallies England
Graeme Swann narrowly missed out on a maiden Test hundred after leading a thrilling England rearguard at Centurion.
England were careering towards a total well short of South Africa’s 418 as they slipped to 242 for eight shortly after tea on the third day, but Swann refused to be cowed by the prospect of a hefty first-innings deficit.
He responded in a manner which has come to define his batting, flaying a hitherto dominant home attack around SuperSport Park with a freedom betraying England’s perilous position.
He was last man out for a Test-best 85 off 81 balls, having illuminated an already scorching day by propelling the tourists to 356 - 62 in arrears.
If Swann’s efforts earned him a standing ovation - lest we forget he completed a five-wicket haul yesterday - James Anderson deserves immense credit for his contribution of 29 to a ninth-wicket stand of 106, a record against the Proteas.
They combined to alter the complexion of a game that appeared to be heading inexorably South Africa’s way for much of the day, and Anderson gave England further reason to cheer by bowling Ashwell Prince in his first over.
That the home side hold an appreciable advantage heading into the penultimate day - they lead by 71 after closing on nine for one - should not be overlooked, but no-one who witnessed Swann’s heroic counter-attack can underestimate its importance.
Without his contribution, England’s objective tomorrow would have centred around damage limitation, whereas now they have reason to harbour slightly loftier ambitions.
Until Swann’s intervention, the momentum was with South Africa almost from the moment England resumed on 88 for one.
Andrew Strauss perished in the sixth over of the day, Jonathan Trott fell before lunch and a nerve-riddled afternoon session saw Paul Harris decimate the middle order on the way to eventual figures of 5-123.
Strauss, who had his off stump ripped out playing back to a good-length delivery from Makhaya Ntini which barely got off the ground, could be afforded a disdainful glance at a surface showing increasingly prevalent cracks.
Neither Trott, Kevin Pietersen, Ian Bell nor Matt Prior, however, could blame anything other than their faulty shot selection.
Trott - bowled between bat and pad as he charged Harris - can expect censure for a choice of stroke hardly in keeping with the measured approach which has typified his embryonic international career thus far.
For his part, Harris deserves credit for creating pressure by limiting England’s scoring opportunities, although a rare full toss was swept over midwicket for six by Pietersen shortly before lunch.
The England batsmen were granted little freedom after the interval, and South Africa’s reward for an admirably full length was two wickets in quick succession.
Pietersen had batted fitfully but, just as he seemed to be approaching fluency, he inside-edged an expansive cover drive off Morne Morkel on to leg stump.
Bell, selected ahead of all-rounder Luke Wright to add depth to England’s batting, managed just five before the anticipation of turn that had been non-existent all morning persuaded him to shoulder arms to a delivery from Harris which struck halfway up middle and off stump.
Friedel de Wet, stationed 15 yards in from the square-leg fence, barely needed to move to catch Prior’s top-edged sweep off Harris, and Collingwood’s joy at reaching 50, off 88 balls, was immediately extinguished when he edged a turning delivery to Jacques Kallis at slip.
A brief rally from Stuart Broad was cut short when he was adjudged lbw playing forward to JP Duminy, but only after South Africa captain Graeme Smith - apprarently prompted by a signal from the dressing room during an interminable delay - had asked for Aleem Dar’s original not-out decision to be reviewed.
Broad was not best pleased and left the on-field umpires in no doubt as to his feelings as he reluctantly left the field, behaviour that is likely to interest match referee Roshan Mahanama.
That Broad’s dismissal - or the new ball being taken - did not affect Swann’s approach should not come as a surprise to anyone who has seen him bat.
He hooked Ntini for six, then drove him back over his head and over point in an over costing 13, and a huge swept six at Harris’ expense brought up the half-century stand off 62 balls.
Swann’s own fifty arrived shortly after - it spanned just 47 deliveries - while Anderson fed off his close friend's joie de vivre to hoist Harris into the crowd at deep midwicket, his first six in Test cricket.
Swann surpassed his previous highest score - 63 not out against Australia at the Brit Oval this summer - before a sweetly timed clip off his pads took him and Anderson past the record ninth-wicket stand against South Africa, the 99 put on by Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison at the Oval six years ago.
There were two Pietersen-style switch-hits for four from the irrepressible Swann, but his fun was cut short when he holed out to deep square-leg the over after Anderson had driven Morkel to mid-off.
That Anderson managed to bowl Prince via his inside edge when South Africa began their second innings reflected the direction of the momentum at the end of a pulsating day.