England's resilience could be enough to carve …a win

OVER 15 days from the first ball in Centurion South Africa and England teams have produced compelling cricket.

That the tourists are still 1-0 ahead with only this week's Test match at the Wanderers in Johannesburg left is even now, three days after the climax in Cape Town, difficult to fathom.

Yet they are, and an inch is as good as a mile which was never truer than when Morne Morkel's penultimate howitzer of the final over missed Graham Onions' flailing gloves by an inch. The No 11's nickname may be Bunny, but his resolute refusal to buckle under the most intense pressure imaginable on a sporting field – and for the second time this series as it was he that thwarted Makhaya Ntini in similar circumstances in the First Test in Centurion – has given Andrew Strauss and Andy Flower a wonderful opportunity to rewrite record books. To defeat the No 1 ranked side in the world, as South Africa were before the series began, in their own backyard with a squad shorn of the presence of Andrew Flintoff and a rather limp Kevin Pietersen is almost miraculous.

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They should not start celebrating yet though. South Africa will regain themselves once more under the strong leadership of the excellent Graeme Smith and will ensure that if England are to triumph in the series it will be by another brilliant display. The pitch will be a little juicier to almost guarantee a result. This should not worry England. A sporting pitch could just as easily work for Stuart Broad, James Anderson and Onions and give England a flattering 2-0 scoreline.

But what a series. There is something mesmeric about a proper Test series played over four or five matches between two equally matched, competitive outfits. For all the attractions of Twenty20 it can never compare to the drama of a thrilling Test match and series. Witness the crowd as Graeme Swann and Onions battled through the final 17 deliveries. The English fans cheered every block then slumped immediately into a silence pregnant with tension, counting down the game ball by ball. The South Africans gnawed body parts and grabbed hair in fistfuls before slumping back into their seats in disappointment after each delivery. It was a thriller.

Test cricket is not dead, the youth of today are prepared to enjoy it just as much as they did decades ago, but they need encouragement from the ICC and India. A proper Test series schedule and the commitment of the major nations is all that is needed to revitalise the five-day game. That should be driven by India, who currently play the most short cricket and the least Test cricket in pursuit of the most cash. They are rich enough to make Solomon weep, but are starting to lack something far more valuable than greenbacks – heritage.

So what to expect in Johannesburg? What we can hope for is another hard-fought match and for some individuals it is an opportunity to confirm themselves. Much has been made of Ian Bell's innings in Cape Town, but the eagerness of everyone involved in the England camp to herald him a champion smacks a bit of insincerity, a desperate attempt to rally round him. He played absolutely beautifully with his tenacity until the moment he got out tamely with three overs remaining and South Africa resurgent. He did not get an unplayable ball like Jonathan Trott earlier in the day, nor did he command England to the very end and walk from the field undefeated. He exposed England to possible loss by a weak dismissal after four hours of defiance that would have made Steve Waugh proud. The difference is Waugh would still be at the crease now absorbing pressure and standing between his team and defeat. This is not churlish, just an appraisal based on facts and devoid of hyperbole. Bell has come a long way to an established Test career in the last two Test matches and this week a century would finally silence the critics.

Like Bell, Alastair Cook, below left, has succeeded when most needed on this trip. His position was precarious, his technique a shambles and opponents knew they could expose his flaws of flirting outside off stump and planting his front foot down the pitch. The work he did with Graham Gooch has rectified some of these errors. His backlift is much straighter now, he stands taller in his stance and therefore is getting dragged into indiscretions on what the professionals call the 'fourth and fifth stump channel' a lot less.

For South Africa, the decisions about this week will be made by the pitch. Paul Harris is a non-spinning spinner and arguably cost them victory in Cape Town. Any competent tweaker would have won the game as JP Duminy, a part-timer nearly did. Now, not every side can have a Shane Warne, but consider this, if Swann had been bowling for South Africa they would have won. They would be better served playing an extra seamer to support the superb Dale Steyn and impressive Morkel. Duminy is more threatening than Harris and contributing more with the ball may actually benefit his batting as he will feel less pressure if he already has taken a couple of wickets. Just five days stands between England and a famous series win. Have they the depths of resilience to withstand another onslaught? Or like a punch drunk boxer will they finally acknowledge the inevitable? A victory perhaps? That would be dreaming but this group have already displayed astounding reservoirs of strength. What a series, what a game Test cricket is.