THE trusty trio of Matt Prior, Ian Bell and Alastair Cook were left to pick up the pieces today as England struggled for survival under the blazing sun in Cape Town.
After a rip-roaring start with the ball, Andrew Strauss's men, 1-0 up in the four-match series, slumped to 73-4 and 174-6 as first Cook (65), then Bell (48) and finally Prior (52 not out - he reached his fifty off the penultimate ball of the day) urged their ailing team towards the South African total of 291.
By the close of a dramatic second day, England are 241-7, still 50 behind, with Stuart Broad, 25, the last man out.
Graeme Swann, the England spinner who can bat a bit (he's only got five but he got a Test best 85 in Centurion) keeping Bell company against a South African attack showing far more urgency than they managed in the innings defeat in Durban after Christmas.
Bell finally buckled after 121 balls, falling just two runs short of a brave half-century. Essex opener Cook kept his head on an incredible morning when the sound of wickets falling echoed constantly off the dramatic cliffs of neighbouring Table Mountain.
Cook, who scored a much-needed century in Durban, survived the loss of current leader Andrew Strauss, the fiddling Jonathan Trott and the reckless Kevin Pietersen before losing a fourth partner in Paul Collingwood with the score a wobbly 73-4.
But Cookie didn’t crumble and when he was joined by Bell, who also produced a much-needed 140 at Kingsmead, the South African attack hit the wall. Bell needed 14 balls before he scored his first runs – a four off Morne Morkel – and he produced his second scoring shot off his 37th ball. Hardly sparkling stuff.
But they survived a torrid session before tea to frustrate the South Africans, who were skittled for 291 this morning. Cook was finally out – Morkel’s third victim – caught by Ashwell Prince off a weak pull shot after 136 balls and nearly four hours of resistance.
England's chances of building a lead are diminishing rapidly. The South Africans were 127-5 at one stage and rallied around centurion Jacques Kallis. Prior needs to do the same with Swann, Graham Onions and Jimmy Anderson at the other end.
But at least this Test has returned to some sort of sanity. At the start of this dramatic day, the cliffs of neighbouring Table Mountain were echoing to the sound of clattering wickets.
South Africa lost four in the first 17 balls for 12 runs to slump from 279-6 to 291 all out. If all Tests went the way of this morning’s first four overs we’d see all four innings completed by lunch-time on day one with just over 100 runs on the board.
But Jimmy Anderson’s five wicket haul was soon forgotten as captain Strauss fell first over to Morkel for two. Trott stayed for 36 balls before he was bowled by Dale Steyn – the world’s top ranked bowler who doesn’t even open for South Africa any more – for 20. The eternally disappointing Pietersen lasted just two balls before Steyn completed a neat caught-and-bowled duck. The first seven wickets of the day had all belonged to men born in South Africa.
And when Morkel finally got rid of Collingwood, lbw, for 19 off 44 balls, England were in deep trouble at 73-4. Cook showed them how to do it, refusing to nibble outside the off-stump and relying largely on the odd flick around the corner to add to his tally. Just twice in 136 balls he actually played with any force on the off-side, and he had to wait until the arrival of non-spinning Paul Harris to slap two fours and raise the tempo with Bell often becalmed at the other end.
But with the wicket offering little, the South Africans, particularly Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn, the world's top ranked Test bowler, never let England get comfortable as Cook, Bell and Broad were winkled out. And that's why England spent all day on the back foot - apart from the first 17 balls.
Tomorrow they're promising further heat, with temperatures rising into the 40s. South Africa may just be in the right place at the right time by lunch tomorrow, and we could head for the final Test at the Wanderers in Johannesburg on January 14 with the series locked at 1-1.