Joe Root defied a fiery South Africa attack, a lively pitch and a tricky match situation to record arguably his finest Test hundred.
Root’s unbeaten 106, his ninth century and second overseas, was a gem of an innings in the kind of circumstances that distinguish players or true class from mere pretenders.
Despite being in clear pain at times, he faced down a snarling Proteas pace quartet – all of whom topped 90mph on day two of the third Test i Johannesburg – and counter-punched brilliantly on an awkward Wanderers track.
Root’s knock, aided by a dashing half-century from Ben Stokes, saw England reach 238 for five before bad light stopped play in reply to 313 all out.
Root arrived with the scoreboard at 22 for two and was still holding up his end at a worrying 91 for four. But the Yorkshireman helped turn the tide with a fifth-wicket stand of 111 in 95 balls alongside Stokes, and carried on to reach three figures for the first time in 13 innings.
Thanks to his efforts, which seemed hampered either by long-standing back problems or some new strain, England are harbouring genuine hopes of a vital first-innings lead.
The day began with South Africa adding 46 for their final three wickets.
That was more than England had bargained for, as was the unexpected sight of James Anderson being removed from the attack after a third warning for running on the pitch.
Stokes took the final wicket immediately after being asked to complete a disgruntled Anderson’s over, but England’s trials were just beginning.
Struggling opener Alex Hales fell for one, pushing Kagiso Rabada to the waiting AB de Villiers, and Alastair Cook (18) handed debutant Hardus Viljoen a prize scalp from his first Test delivery.
England might easily have lost a third before the break, Root and Nick Compton penned back and beaten a handful of times by the pace and aggression of Rabada and Viljoen.
Compton’s 50 stand with Root was an important one before he prodded Rabada to second slip.
James Taylor’s stay was brief and jittery and he fell to the first ball of a new Morne Morkel spell, Temba Bavuma taking a tough short-leg chance after parrying the initial attempt.
Stokes, England’s double centurion in Cape Town, entered the Bullring and Morkel responded with a pair of brutish deliveries. The first rattled the splice and the second reared angrily, thudding the glove in front of Stokes’ face. But, in the next eight overs before tea, Stokes and Root piled on 70 runs as the No 4 reached his 50.
Runs continued to flow after the restart, Stokes staying in fifth gear and Root happily swinging at anything short despite his growing discomfort.
Stokes’ half-century came in just 46 balls, with a particularly powerful blow off the bull-like Viljoen.
Then, however, Morkel tucked him up with a back-of-length ball on leg stump and gathered a loopy return catch.
Root reached his hundred with a delightful cover driven four, one of 17.
He was congratulated by partner Jonny Bairstow, who had earlier spurned the chance to equal the Test record of seven catches in an innings by grassing Morne Morkel.