England’s Joe Root scored a dazzling century to reverse the momentum of the third Test after South Africa looked set to take control in Johannesburg today.
Replying to the Proteas’ 313, England were wobbling at 22 for 2 and 91 for 4.
But Root combined with Ben Stokes to counter-attack in a fifth-wicket stand of 111 made at a rate of seven an over.
After Stokes fell for 58, Root moved to three figures and was 106 not out when bad light and rain ended day two 80 minutes early with England 238 for 5.
What made the effort of Root and Stokes all the more outstanding was its contrast to the rest of the England batting, as the majority of the top order struggled on a lively pitch against a hostile South Africa attack.
As England teetered, they responded by flaying the Proteas to all parts of the Bullring to give the tourists, 1-0 up in the four-match series, every chance of earning a first-innings lead.
When James Taylor inside-edged Morne Morkel to short leg, England were 222 behind with six first-innings wickets remaining in conditions that seemed perilous for batting.
Stokes was almost hit on the jaw by Morkel from the second ball he faced, but when he hooked his fifth ball from Kagiso Rabada for six, it began an exhilarating passage of play.
The South Africa bowlers, previously rampant, were left short of ideas, just as they were when Stokes plundered 258 in the second Test in Cape Town.
Root scored all around, with cuts, pulls and some flowing straight drives, while Stokes whipped off his pads, slashed through third man and played one disdainful lofted drive off Morkel that encapsulated England’s dominance.
Morkel would have his revenge, holding Stokes’ leading edge off his own bowling, but Root completed his century with a wonderful cover drive and had added 36 with Jonny Bairstow at more than five an over when the weather intervened.
That England were in peril was partly down to the imposing presence of Hardus Viljoen, the towering pace bowler on debut.
Viljoen had Alastair Cook caught down the leg side from his very first delivery in Test cricket, becoming only the 20th bowler in the history of the game to strike with his first ball.
Not only that, but Viljoen hit the first ball he faced with the bat for four. New Zealander Matt Henderson, against England in 1930, is the only other Test cricketer to complete such a double.
Viljoen was 20 not out when Morkel was the last to fall, edging Stokes to first slip. That too was Stokes’ first delivery after coming on midway through an over because James Anderson had to be removed from the attack after running on the pitch.
Viljoen’s dismissal of Cook came as both England openers fell cheaply and in familiar circumstances.
Alex Hales slashed Rabada to second slip with a flat-footed drive, while Cook’s edge down the leg side, often seen as unlucky, is happening often enough to suggest the captain might have a problem.
Nick Compton was dropped at second slip on six but edged Rabada to the same place 20 runs later, while Taylor bat-padded Morkel to be well held by Temba Bavuma.
England were in danger of being rolled over. Then came the Root and Stokes blitz.