Alastair Cook (65), Matt Prior (52no) and Ian Bell all displayed admirable determination to keep the first-innings deficit to manageable levels as England reached stumps on 241 for seven in reply to 291 all out. Kevin Pietersen's departure for a second-ball duck made his the seventh wicket to fall in a crazy first session which started with England hustling out the home tail.
On a slow pitch of occasional uneven bounce, the tourists soon knew they faced a long haul to approach parity.
Cook and Bell dug in for a 60-run fifth-wicket stand but neither was able to consolidate sufficiently to get anywhere near three figures, and it therefore fell to Prior to bat through almost the entire evening session as England eked out a tenable position.
Cook had earlier left the majority of 136 deliveries faced, drawn into a shot only when defence was necessary or attack feasible. It needed the introduction of Paul Harris to tempt him into a relative rush of runs – including three slog-sweeps for four in two overs.
Cook has always been a no-frills batsman but has recently taken his percentage game to new extremes. "When you haven't been scoring runs, the patience is a lot harder to pull off," he said. "The cover-drive might be there at some stage, on wickets I feel I can play it on. But it's a high-risk shot for me."
He eventually fell to a tame, aerial pull shot at Morne Morkel straight after tea and admitted: "It's frustrating, when you do all the hard work. But it's one of my shots, and I obviously didn't execute it very well today. A lack of pace is what has probably done for me. It's very disappointing, but you'll take 60 odd rather than less."
Bell was still more watchful, needing 15 deliveries to get off the mark with a square-driven four off Dale Steyn and not adding to that in 10 overs before doubling his score with another boundary past cover off Jacques Kallis.
The South Africa all-rounder responded with a barrage of short balls for Bell, whose no-pull policy meant he was restricted to fend-offs – with a short-leg waiting to pounce on any mistake. The England number six appeared to have won the battle, though, until the return of Kallis from the Kelvin Grove end had him cutting an undeserving ball aerially to point to fall two runs short of a deserved 50 – and leave England still 117 runs adrift, without a remaining specialist batsman.
After James Anderson (five for 63) helped the tourists blow away South Africa's last four wickets in only 20 minutes yesterday morning, England almost immediately lost Andrew Strauss but then appeared to be re-establishing some calm – until Jonathan Trott and Pietersen went in the same Steyn over. England began the madcap procession of wickets, in glorious conditions which ought to have favoured bat over ball, by taking three in seven deliveries – the first overnight centurion Kallis. He fell to the first ball he faced – a perfect one from Graham Onions, which nipped away off the pitch and found his outside edge for a caught behind as he was turned round on the back foot. Kallis' dismissal was swiftly followed by those of Steyn and Morkel, both caught in the slips off Anderson in the second over of the day.
Anderson completed his eighth five-wicket haul at the highest level by pinning Friedel de Wet lbw. But Strauss fell in England's first over when he drove at Morkel (three for 57), edging behind for just two.
Cook and Trott were serene for an hour, until the number three played away from his body at first change Steyn and edged down on to his stumps.
Pietersen strode out to a predictably mixed reception, ducked a bouncer first ball off Steyn (three for 64) – and then promptly drove back a return catch.
Paul Collingwood stayed until he missed a full ball from Morkel to go lbw, the only wicket in the second session, and Cook's was a tame departure in the end.
Much, therefore depended on Bell and Prior.
Bell could not sustain his effort, and Prior wafted and missed several times early in his innings.
However, in the end, England could be thankful that their wicketkeeper did not let them down as he and Stuart Broad shared a half-century stand with the second new ball pending – until Steyn did the number eight for pace.
Prior's personal reward just before the close was a 95-ball 50 which needed some early luck but was nonetheless chanceless, and very valuable.