Nervous England cling on
England overcame a virulent attack of nerves and astonishing final-evening collapse to salvage a draw in a thrilling climax to the opening Test against South Africa.
They lost five wickets for 13 runs in 11 overs to the second new ball, sparking panic in the tourists’ ranks during a pulsating final hour at Centurion.
England slipped to a precipitous 218 for nine as the excitement grew in proportion to the shadows at SuperSport Park, and it needed all of Paul Collingwood’s famed fighting spirit to deny South Africa victory.
He was accompanied by Graham Onions for the final 3.1 overs of the match, which ended with the England dressing room breathing a collective sigh of relief after the number 11 played out a maiden from Makhaya Ntini.
In total, Onions survived 12 of the most important balls of his career, while Collingwood more than an hour and a half and 99 deliveries over his unbeaten 26, contributions every bit as important as Kevin Pietersen’s fluent 81 or a rather more painstaking 69 from Jonathan Trott.
Pietersen and Trott were responsible for rescuing England - set an unlikely 364 to win - from the depths of 27 for three, courtesy of a 145-run stand for the fourth wicket.
But Pietersen inexplicably ran himself out just after tea, and there can be no better example of England’s capacity for engineering a tense finish from a seemingly impregnable position than the collapse that saw Friedel de Wet rip through the middle order.
The debutant removed Trott, Ian Bell and Matt Prior in the space of four overs en route to figures of 4-55, before Stuart Broad edged Paul Harris behind and Morne Morkel pinned Graeme Swann lbw in a passage of play worryingly familiar to those who followed England in the 1990s.
As it is, Andrew Strauss and company head to Durban for the Boxing Day Test with their nerves shredded but, crucuially, honours even in the four-Test series.
It is to be hoped Pietersen and Trott are on speaking terms by then. One suspects relations may be a touch frosty following the mix-up which saw both end up at the same end - and Pietersen’s enjoyable innings cut short - moments after tea.
It said much for Trott’s mental strength - the overriding theme of his five-and-a-quarter-hour stay - that he did not let it affect him, instead pressing on doggedly to carry England to within sight of safety.
That his colleagues lower down the order, with the exception of Collingwood and Onions, failed to demonstrate equal adhesiveness should not lessen the value of his innings - and Pietersen’s for that matter.
If blindly optimistic England fans had not ruled out the possibility of a record run-chase before play got under way this morning at 11 for one, they were forced to readjust their sights following an alarming first hour.
James Anderson’s nightwatchman duties extended only 10 minutes into the morning as he gloved de Wet down the leg side, and Alastair Cook had added just eight to his overnight four by the time he lunged at slow left-armer Paul Harris. A combination of glove and pad gifted Graeme Smith a simple catch at leg slip.
Progress was almost painfully slow for the remainder of the session, with Trott becalmed by Harris: at one point there were seven close catchers plus the wicketkeeper around the bat, and he took 63 balls to reach double figures.
Trott’s fluency improved after lunch, although Pietersen continued to do the bulk of the scoring, punching de Wet down the ground shortly before a no-ball call saved him, on 39, from what would have been an unequivocal lbw decision against the same bowler.
A couple of scampered singles took Pietersen to a 76-ball fifty containing seven fours, and Harris’ decision to bowl over the wicket and into Pietersen’s pad was the surest sign that South Africa were running out of ideas.
There were the occasional moments of alarm, such as when he padded up to Harris and saw the ball spin narrowly past off stump as he attempted to kick it away at the second attempt.
A determined 135-ball half-century for Trott came up shortly before tea courtesy of a cover-drive off Morkel, and thoughts had begun to drift towards the possibility, however remote, of a successful run-chase before Pietersen’s rush of blood.
Having dropped de Wet into the off side, he set off in search of a tight single. Ignoring Trott’s immediate shout of ‘no’, Pietersen continued his charge towards the non-striker’s end, past Trott and on to the pavilion as de Wet collected the ball, coolly made his way to the stumps and removed the bails.
While an argument could be made in defence of Pietersen, who, having called for the run, would have expected his partner to respond, it is worth noting that he had ample time to regain his ground after Trott showed an obvious lack of interest.
Collingwood survived an lbw shout (and subsequent review), a thick edge and a shooter in de Wet’s next over as South Africa sensed their opportunity, but he saw Trott superbly held low down one-handed to his left by AB de Villiers at third slip just as the game entered the final hour.
Wicketkeeper Mark Boucher was similarly athletic in catching Bell, Prior offered a much simpler chance, and Broad departed after asking for a review of his dismissal, caught behind pushing forward, that was bound to fail.
Swann, whose first-innings heroics with bat and ball earned him the match award, was trapped in front by a delivery from Morkel which nipped back and kept low, but Onions’ solid technique ensured Collingwood’s decision to run a single in the penultimate over and leave him to face the final six balls was not fatal.