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Cricket: England saved by masterly Bell

Twice now, within the space of three Test matches, South Africa have laid siege to the fortress without breaching the defences.

Led, inevitably, by Paul Collingwood, who is fast becoming the master of the nerve-jangling rearguard action, and by Ian Bell, who responded to the situation as he has not always done in national colours, England held out -- just -- with the final pairing of Graeme Onions and Graham Swann surviving the final 17 balls of another utterly absorbing Test.

This was desperate stuff again, as the England players sat on the balcony chewing their nails and the supporters cheered every ball that the last pair survived, as they had done in Centurion two matches ago and in Cardiff last summer.

Once again it was Onions, 'Bunny' by nickname but not by nature, who was charged with the responsibility of seeing England home, this time with Swann for company.

It was Morne Morkel this time, rather than Makhaya Ntini, who ran in for the final six balls of the game. His third and fourth balls were perfectly pitched yorkers, which Onions dug out, his fifth a rip-snorting bouncer, from which Onions just managed to withdraw his gloves, the ball instead flicking the back sleeve of his shirt, as the review, which Proteas captain Graeme Smith called for, showed. It was that close.


The final ball, a powder-puff length one that suggested Morkel's strength had been sapped by his previous effort, was safely negotiated and Swann and Onions embraced in the middle as the rest of the England players celebrated what, by surviving 141 overs, was a significant achievement. They will go to Johannesburg with their hard-earned 1-0 lead intact. South Africa will be hard pressed to prise it from their grasp.

The deflation for South Africa was obvious in the way that they trooped off the field, heads bowed, and in the low-key manner in which Smith answered the statutory post-match questions. South Africa have had their chances in this series and their captain knows that they may not get another as good as the one they had in the third Test here. England, after losing James Anderson and Jonathan Trott in the morning, were five wickets down at lunch with the new ball due.

That there is steel hidden in the linings of this England team is not in doubt, but they were helped yesterday by two factors. The pitch played truly throughout, displaying none of the fickle tendencies you expect of a worn, fifth-day strip after four days of hot sun and, Dale Steyn apart, South Africa's attack lacked bite. Steyn took only one wicket during the day, that of Trott, whose off stump was sent cart-wheeling, but this was scant reward for a performance of sustained spirit and high skill.

Friedel de Wet was hampered by a muscle spasm in a buttock and was noticeably down on pace throughout the day. He bowled only 12 overs in the innings, four on the final day. Morkel did not bowl badly, but his radar was awry with the new ball after lunch when he needed it most. Paul Harris took three wickets but bowled poorly throughout, the large number of full tosses betraying the anxiety he must have felt, given the expectation on a spinner on the final day.

The crucial period came not at the end of the day, but just after lunch, when Steyn bowled one of the best new-ball spells (6-4-13-0) at Collingwood you could wish to see. Collingwood was camped at Steyn's end, not by intent or design, but because he could not lay a bat on the ball to escape. Seven times Steyn passed his outside edge, seven times Collingwood stood and stared impassively, although the final time the bowler beat him, both players acknowledged each other with rueful smiles. Had Steyn broken Collingwood then, there is little doubt that England would have lost.

But Collingwood held firm, although he will be thankful for the review system that gave him a reprieve after Tony Hill thought he had edged the first ball of his innings from Harris to slip. It had actually come off Collingwood's back leg.


Bell, too, played beautifully, his 286-minute innings an exercise in self-restraint that goes against the grain for such a gifted player. Bell's talents have never been in doubt, his temperament instead the question mark against him and this innings has gone a long way to establishing his credentials as a scorer of not just pretty, but important runs.

Others played their part. Trott's innings took up more than two hours and that of Anderson, the nightwatchman, just over an hour. Anderson had looked untroubled until he swept a full toss from Harris on to his boot and to leg slip, where Ashwell Prince took an outstanding catch. If South Africa's bowlers lacked the punch to deliver the knockout blow, their close fielding was nothing less than excellent.

Collingwood and Bell stayed together for 235 minutes, until there were only 13.3 overs remaining, by which stage a draw seemed inevitable. But England like to do things the hard way -- either that or they really are in the business of keeping Test cricket alive. Collingwood pushed forward to the part-time off spin of J-P Duminy and edged to slip, and South Africa, who must have been on the point of calling it quits, steeled themselves for one more effort.

Matt Prior then pushed Duminy into the hands of short leg, by which stage there were 11 overs remaining. It was time for Smith, as he had done at Centurion Park, to captain by gut feeling, and he turned to Steyn with seven overs to go, then to Harris next over, now that the left-handed Stuart Broad was at the crease. Broad took up 22 balls before Harris finally located the rough he had sought but not found for much of the day, the ball popping off the left-hander's left glove into the hands of short leg.

There were 20 balls remaining when Swann joined Bell. He hit his first ball nonchalantly through the off side for four, but Smith had one final trick up his sleeve. He replaced Steyn with Morkel from the Kelvin Grove End and Bell offered half a bat to Morkel's first ball, steering it straight to first slip. Bell will be disappointed with the shot and that he did not see things through to the end, but his was an innings to be proud of.

Onions and Swann combined now to face 11 balls from Morkel and, as it turned out, one more over from Steyn, who replaced Harris. There was little time for recognising that the old game had produced another cracker and that these teams had taken each other to the limits again, but it, and they, had.

South Africa crowded around, like jackals eyeing a kill on the African plain, but not close enough as Onions fended off a bouncer in Morkel's penultimate over to where short gully might have been. It was to be South Africa's final chance. (© The Times, London)

Irish Independent