Debutant Stephen Cook and Hashim Amla both made hundreds for South Africa before England fought back on day one of the fourth Test in Centurion.
Cook, 33, made 115 and former captain Amla 109 in a stand of 202.
Both men were dropped – Cook on 47 and Amla on five – but England’s bowlers showed little control of line or length in the first two sessions.
However, the tourists took four wickets after tea to leave South Africa 329-5 at the close.
Although England lost the toss, the heavy atmosphere in Centurion suggested the bowlers might receive some assistance, only for the visiting attack to fail to get the ball in the right areas often enough.
As a result, Cook and Amla made the most of a true surface, before England’s late rally kept their chances of a 3-0 series win, and their best result in South Africa since 1914, still alive.
Cook makes up for lost time
Right-hander Cook, son of former South Africa opener Jimmy, had scored more than 11,000 runs in a 15-year first-class career before finally getting his chance at the highest level in one of five changes to the Proteas side.
He looked immediately at home, whipping his first ball through mid-wicket for four in a portent of things to come, with England erring so frequently on the leg side that 80 of his 115 came off his pads.
Only when he neared three figures did he lose his composure, spending an hour in the 90s and surviving an lbw review on 98.
After he became the 100th man to score a century on Test debut, a rare error around off stump saw play on off Chris Woakes.
In his second-wicket stand with Cook, the wristy Amla was imperious.
He played a number of beautiful drives – 13 of his 19 fours came through the covers – and whips through mid-wicket.
His century, reached by tucking James Anderson off his pads, was his 25th in Test cricket and fifth at Centurion Park.
Amla appeared so comfortable that it was a surprise when he too played on off Ben Stokes just after tea.
England go from ridiculous…
England, so rampant in the third Test win in Johannesburg, were well below their best in the first two sessions, with Stuart Broad and James Taylor perhaps the only members of the XI that were due praise.
Broad was again dangerous with the new ball, while Taylor pulled off another brilliant catch at short leg, this time moving with the charging Dean Elgar to get an inside edge off Moeen Ali lodged between his legs.
But the rest of the pace attack, particularly James Anderson and Woakes, were woefully inaccurate and Jonny Bairstow was guilty of two wicketkeeping errors.
First, he dived to distract Alastair Cook, who dropped Amla’s edge off Stokes, and then failed to hold on to another diving chance when Stephen Cook edged Broad.
…to the resurgent
England’s improvement came in the evening session, which was oddly delayed by around 10 minutes when water was discovered to be oozing from the ground square of the wicket.
When play resumed, England’s bowlers showed greater control and benefitted from South Africa errors as the hosts slipped from 237-1 to 273-5.
After Stokes accounted for Amla, AB de Villiers edged Broad to second slip for a second-ball duck.
And once Woakes removed Cook, JP Duminy played a horrible swipe at Moeen to be pinned lbw.
Still, Temba Bavuma and Quinton de Kock added an unbeaten 56 against the second new ball and a prolonged occupation by one or both of them on the second morning could yet bat England out of the game.
What they said
South Africa batsman Stephen Cook on BBC Test Match Special: “I had to wait a long time [to play Test cricket], so when I was in the 90s I thought, ‘I’ve had to wait so long, so I might as well wait another hour if I have to [to get a century].’
“There were times when things were tough, when you think maybe this dream won’t come true. Now I’m feeling absolute elation. It really is a dream come true.”
Former England batsman Geoffrey Boycott: “Cook’s footwork was immaculate, absolutely gorgeous. His shots were nice touch shots.
“They have had airy fairy opening batsmen in but where has he been? For 90 runs he looked an excellent opening batsmen.”
England batsman Joe Root: “We weren’t quite at our absolute best, but I thought the way we applied ourselves in the last two hours was a great effort. I wouldn’t say we lacked intensity, but sometimes you can have a bad day.”
The stats you may have missed
- Stephen Cook had 35 first-class centuries before play began, the ninth most by a Test debutant. His father Jimmy is joint-second with Graeme Hick on that list, with 57. WG Grace had 62, but his career began before the inaugural Test
- The last time South Africa made five changes to a Test in a single series was 1949-50 against Australia
- This is the fifth time opposing opening batsmen (Stephen Cook and Alastair Cook) have shared the same surname in a Test
- Stephen Cook is the sixth South African to make hundred on debut and the 100th player in the history of Test cricket
- Hashim Amla scored his fourth-quickest Test hundred (131 balls), his fifth at Centurion and his sixth against England