Onions saves the day once more
England demonstrated their remarkable capacity to survive by the skin of their teeth, as last man Graham Onions batted out for a draw at Newlands in one of the greatest Test matches for many a year.
In a carbon copy of the first Test of this remarkable series, South Africa had England nine wickets down heading into the 90th over of the fifth day.
That left Onions, Test average 8.66, as last man on deck.
But no doubt emboldened by his heroics at Centurion, the number 11 withstood all six balls from Morne Morkel.
His absolute determination not to give away his wicket, and that of Paul Collingwood and Ian Bell before him, ensured that England cannot lose the series, and retain their 1-0 lead going to the final Test.
In his one moment of alarm, Onions survived a vociferous appeal for caught behind from the rearing penultimate ball, but television replays vindicated umpire Daryl Harper’s verdict of not out.
Morkel’s last ball whistled past his off stump, and England finished on 296 for nine, 170 away from their nominal target of 466.
An hour earlier, it seemed unlikely that such a denouement would come to pass. Unflinching resistance from Collingwood and Bell, who batted together for 57 overs from late morning, seemed to have guided England to safety.
But Collingwood’s dismissal, after 188 balls of denial, broke a sixth-wicket stand of 121 and exposed the lower-order for the remaining 13.3 overs.
Sensing blood, South Africa circled like vultures. Graeme Smith positioned as many as nine close fielders around the bat, as he turned to the unlikely source of JP Duminy’s off-spin for salvation.
The hitherto composed Bell edged through slip, and Matt Prior survived just nine balls before poking Duminy to short-leg.
Smith became a victim of his own policy, colliding with fellow short-leg Paul Harris attempting a catch off Stuart Broad. The captain required treatment, but it hardly held his team up.
Broad survived until four overs from the end, gloving Harris to a close catcher. His misguided call for a review was turned down by third umpire Aleem Dar.
Smith gambled on pace for the last three overs, and the rewards were immediate when Bell feathered Morkel behind, once again an unfitting way for his innings to end.
Nevertheless, Bell may reflect that his 78 from 213 balls was more valuable than any of his nine Test centuries to date.
That left the 10th-wicket pair 17 balls to survive, two fewer than Collingwood and Onions needed in Centurion. Few would have given Onions much chance in a repeat performance, but he brought his audacity with him once more.
England began the day with seven wickets in hand as they attempted to deny South Africa victory. Spirits were raised when Jonathan Trott and nightwatchman James Anderson survived the opening 45 minutes unscathed.
Anderson bravely held out for 52 balls before succumbing to an inspired call by Mark Boucher, who summoned Ashwell Prince to backward short-leg. Anderson immediately obliged by edging an attempted sweep off Paul Harris to Prince via his own boot.
That ushered in Collingwood, who already has entries from the Brit Oval, Cardiff and Centurion in a bulging scrapbook of previous rearguards. He visibly relished the challenge.
To Harris' next ball and his first, Collingwood was reprieved of a poor decision. He was given out caught at slip by umpire Tony Hill, but on replay the ball was clearly shown to have hit the batsman’s hip rather than bat.
It mattered not a jot that Collingwood took 21 balls to get off the mark, but the loss of Trott, blown away by a Dale Steyn snorter that ripped through his defences, was a genuine blow to England’s chances. Trott faced 99 balls for his 42.
Yet unlike Centurion and Cardiff, Collingwood had a middle-order partner to help him out this time, and Bell was in rich form.
Their first task was to weather a fearsome six-over spell from Steyn, armed with the new ball on its immediate introduction after lunch.
Clocking in as high as 90mph, Steyn sent nine searing outswingers past Collingwood's flailing outside edge. It was just as well that he could not get bat on ball.
Once Steyn was rested, South Africa struggled to exert sufficient pressure from either end. Third seamer Friedel de Wet was inconvenienced by a bad back, and the last-day pitch showed remarkably few signs of wear to encourage Harris.
The pair batted with few problems to tea. When they returned for the final session, Bell played the first loose shot in what seemed an age, past short-leg’s ear.
He went on to bring up a richly-deserved fifty, from 134 balls, in the 115th over. The hundred partnership followed four overs later, marked when Bell unfurled a rare cover drive to the boundary.
But just as the job appeared to have been completed, Collingwood started to tire, and edged Duminy from around the wicket to Jacques Kallis at slip for 40.
Their stand may have been broken at 121 when Collingwood nicked Duminy, but his alliance with Bell will go down as one of England’s finest recent rearguards, earning comparison with that of another northern stonewaller, Mike Atherton, who famously joined with Jack Russell in Johannesburg in 1995.
And it is to the Wanderers where these emotionally exhausted sides must go to decide the fate of the Basil d’Oliveira Trophy. How South Africa pick themselves up for that is anyone's guess.