CENTURION: England are not on course to enjoy a final flourish to this series after Jonny Bairstow dropped both Stephen Cook and Hashim Amla, who went on to contribute centuries to South Africa's total of 329 for five on the first day of the fourth Test.
The best that England can realistically hope for is to hang on to their 2-0 lead with the aid of high veld storms, perhaps with James Anderson blocking out the final over as Graham Onions did in 2010. The chances of England being set an unchallenging target of 249, as the late Hansie Cronje did for them, are remote.
Bairstow's two missed chances - offered by Cook when 47 off Stuart Broad, and Amla when five off Ben Stokes - were similar.
Bairstow did right in the first instance to go for the catch, rather than leave it to Alastair Cook at first slip, because the ball might not have carried. But his technique was faulty.
Instead of staying down, and launching himself sideways, Bairstow came up from his crouch and then had to dive downwards. His reach, or wing span, would have been greater if he had stayed down - the difference between the second chance, from Cook, sticking in his glove and flicking his fingers.
Bairstow had missed two chances in Durban (one a stumping), another in Cape Town and a fourth in Johannesburg, before the two here. England's head coach, Trevor Bayliss, reiterates that Bairstow's keeping is a work in progress, and that he practises hard, but 11/2 misses per game - when the chances are catchable by international standards - is not sustainable long-term.
Overall, Bairstow still has to be in credit, having scored 345 runs in his five innings here, to go with the 13 catches and one stumping he has taken. But even at this stage of England's tour, after all his improvements, he is not so good a keeper as Jos Buttler was before he was overcome in the United Arab Emirates by fatigue and self-doubts about his batting.
Bairstow, mortified, knew how damaging his two misses were - both to England's chances of winning 3-0 and his own Test career - long before Cook and Amla had completed their second-wicket stand of 202. And the sensitive silence of team-mates no doubt felt worse than screams of invective.
A spectacular catch, even for James Taylor, was all that England had on the plus side before tea. Lucky? Not really. Like Bairstow's misses, Taylor's catch was a product of his technique, and bravery, rather than anything to do with superstition.
Instead of turning his back when Dean Elgar pulled an off-break, Taylor overrode instinct and kept facing the action. The ball wedged between his legs and seemed to roll around various other parts of his anatomy as he lay on the ground, before he plucked it out with his right hand with much the same delight as a midwife holding a baby.
Cook, the debutant, had already settled by the time Elgar was out. Cook indeed had looked at home from his first ball when he clipped to the boundary a half-volley that Anderson had landed outside leg stump - some compensation for having to be made to wait for his Test debut for so long.
Cook should have taken over a year ago from Alviro Petersen as South Africa's opening batsman, instead of the experiment with Stiaan van Zyl.
South Africa looked a far stronger team from the outset, in spite of their having made five changes, because of this specialist opening pair they had finally installed.
Knowing his game, as the leading run-scorer in domestic cricket, Cook was content to accumulate in second and third gear until he became the 100th batsman to score a hundred on Test debut.
As his father Jimmy had made nought on debut, they emulated Ken and Hamish Rutherford, of New Zealand.
But even if he had not reached 10, Cook should have earned a lengthy run, such was the air of competence when he pushed a quick single into a gap, or let the ball hit him in the chest - anywhere but on the gloves.
If Chris Rogers at 35 could launch a substantial career for Australia as an old-fashioned opener, so can Cook for South Africa at 33.
Cook had the advantage of seeing Amla lead the way to a hundred and make some of England's bowling look easy.
Amla's cover drive was severe on Chris Woakes, who strove for wickets early on - having taken only seven in his five previous Tests - before realising this pitch required patience.
Amla's 25th Test century gave him 46 in all international cricket, the most of anyone still playing, as the leading seven have all retired from the highest level. The bounce of Centurion - which
England would have utilised better if Steven Finn had been fit and the series at stake - suited Amla's driving on the up, to the extent that his average on the ground now stands at 87.
Had Bairstow taken one of those chances - preferably the first when Amla was five - England might have been more motivated during the oppressive humidity of the afternoon. But leaden legs spoke louder than words, and the altitude - if not so high as Johannesburg - is still 4,500 feet.
As the final session cooled, England dug deep for a final fling and were aided by a couple of inside edges, while J?P Duminy - preferred to Faf du Plessis - artlessly went to pull a quicker off-break. But their sally was repulsed by South Africa's young sixth-wicket pair of Temba Bavuma and Quinton de Kock, who tucked into the second new ball and scored 46 runs.
The appearance of A?B de Villiers was greeted with a roar on his home ground, and his disappearance with silence, after he had fended his second ball to gully's left. The captain's attention may have been distracted by his partner's maiden hundred, as Cook had reached 98.
Anderson was the least successful of England's bowlers but not
the worst. He twice passed Cook's outside edge with the first new ball, which is more than anyone else
did. But England's warhorse is down in rhythm and confidence, if not pace.