JOHANNESBURG: South Africa have been England's closest competitors over the last generation, as the scoreline of 13-11 to South Africa since their readmission indicates.
Here we have another tight Test match, staged on a result wicket and a knife edge. After a terrific first day, when South Africa scored 267 for seven, this occasion now awaits the cricketer who can seize it by the scruff.
Two months ago South Africa played a Test against India in Nagpur in which nobody on either side scored a fifty. The pitch was a shocker, with bits coming out before the first lunch interval, so that even the International Cricket Council - with all its deference to India - had to label it "poor". But there is no reason why a batsman cannot make a match-winning score here.
If one of South Africa's overnight batsmen, Chris Morris and Kagiso Rabada, goes on to score fifty and take his country past 300, that will give South Africa the edge. If an England batsman can make a
century, especially a big or "daddy hundred", the series against the world's Test No?1 will be as good as won.
Over the next two or three days this Test deserves a crowd to match. For an England match at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, which cricket shared with rugby before moving to the Wanderers, 35,000 once turned up - the biggest crowd for a cricket match in South Africa - but on day one here the attendance was no more than 8,664.
It is difficult to know what allowance to make for England's illnesses. Normally England issue a medical bulletin if a player goes off ill or injured, but there were none yesterday other than Alastair Cook, the captain, saying at the toss: "A few aren't feeling 100 per cent." Gastric disorders have been widespread in the squad since the start of the new year, and the party line was that the players would just get on with it, and no excuses.
Alex Hales, Ben Stokes and Stuart Broad were the players who most frequently left the field. At one point a ball was hit through midwicket, and neither Broad at mid-on nor Hales at deep square did more than trot towards it. If that was any measure of their physical state, England did well to maintain the intensity they did.
But England were again at fault for bowling too short in the morning. The cloud was thick at the start, and South Africa were unsettled by the loss of their new wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock, so that Dane Vilas had to fly from Port Elizabeth and did not arrive until halfway through the first session. Yet South Africa won it on points by reaching 73 for one.
Not only did the new ball swing for James Anderson, it also swung for Steven Finn as it aged. Several of Finn's deliveries were nothing less than perfection, except for the outcome: fast and full outswingers which veered past the outside edge.
From that first phase onwards until the close, the balance stayed much the same. Mostly South Africa seemed to be one wicket ahead. If another wicket had fallen at the same total, the game would have been even; if two, then England would have been ahead.
The one South African batsman who threatened to seize the opening day was their new captain A?B de Villiers. In the Cape Town Test his batting had been the opposite of most England players: constipated. Here he hammered two of his first three deliveries for four, after Dean Elgar had laid another of his concrete foundations, and Stiaan van Zyl had yielded to another soft dismissal.
Had De Villiers stayed, such was his mood that he would have taken the game away, or at least set South Africa on course to levelling the four-match series at 1-1.
The ball was more than 50 overs old, and Moeen Ali had to do most of the bowling from one end, given some sickness among the pace bowlers, not least that of altitude. De Villiers hit 21 off his 17 balls from the off-spinner including a six that went so far out of the ground it was deemed lost and replaced.
If England had two players in particular to thank for dragging them back into the game after South Africa had peaked at 161 for three, they were their Cape Town heroes, Ben Stokes and Jonny Bairstow, who responded again.
Recognising the growing severity of England's condition, after taking no more than a wicket in the morning, Stokes metaphorically bust a gut after lunch if he had not literally done so.
Here he was putting his hand up as a bowler in the first game after his 258 at Newlands: a true all-rounder, not just a batsman who bowls, and his bouncer gloved De Villiers.
Bairstow took the first four wickets with fairly straightforward catches as Elgar's edge was a thin one. What was outstanding was his part in the running out of Temba Bavuma, who hesitated when he saw how swift was the pick-up by the substitute Chris Woakes at mid-on.
Like a scrum-half diving into his pack of forwards and flicking the ball out, Bairstow sprinted to the stumps and, although at full tilt, still took the one-bounce throw by Woakes cleanly and broke the wicket. Bairstow has been growing with every game.
In this series Moeen has considered containment to be his job. The one ball he tossed up was his last of the day, a full toss Rabada clumped for six.
That Faf du Plessis had charged an off-break in Durban meant little: Moeen still fired the ball through, and he might have had more than one wicket on a dry pitch offering turn.