Rory Burns and Dom Sibley raised English hopes with a solid opening partnership after England were set a challenging 376 to win on the third day of the first Test against South Africa at SuperSport Park on Saturday.
England were 121 for one wicket at the close of play, needing another 255 runs to win.
The left-handed Burns and right-handed Sibley put on 92 for the first wicket before Sibley pushed back a return catch to left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj after making a patient 29.
Burns made 77 not out and saw out the day with first innings top-scorer Joe Denly, who was on 10.
It was an impressive innings by Burns, who made his runs off 117 balls and hit 11 fours. He was particularly strong on the leg side.
Burns was given out leg before wicket to Kagiso Rabada with his score on six in the first over but survived on review. On 20, he was dropped by Rassie van der Dussen at first slip off Vernon Philander.
Both Van der Dussen and Philander played prominent roles with the bat earlier as South Africa’s last six wickets added 200 runs.
New cap Van der Dussen (51) and nightwatchman Anrich Nortje (40) shared a fifth wicket partnership of 91, the best of the match before the Burns-Sibley stand.
Van der Dussen and Nortje were not parted until half an hour before lunch as England endured a frustrating morning, including two extended periods when captain Joe Root was off the field because of illness. Wicketkeeper Jos Buttler did not appear at all, with Jonny Bairstow taking the gloves.
Van der Dussen and Nortje fell in successive overs to Jofra Archer, who claimed the third five-wicket haul of his short Test career, taking five for 102.
But Archer was expensive and one of the main offenders as England persisted with short-pitched bowling for most of the morning on a pitch where a fuller length had challenged batsmen.
The runs continued to flow after Van der Dussen and Nortje were dismissed. Quinton de Kock hit 34 and Philander 46. Three of De Kock’s first four scoring shots were sixes, hooked off Archer despite fielders being placed on the boundary at long leg and fine leg.
Philander ensured that South Africa took their lead comfortably beyond the 300 that Philander said on Friday night he considered “probably a safe zone”.
On a cool, overcast day the pitch did not appear to be as difficult for batsmen as on the first two days when 24 wickets fell for 537 runs and by the close, South Africa had reason to be relieved that they had set their opponents a higher target than expected.
England batsman Joe Denly said on Friday that there were no demons in the pitch and that the key was to see off the new ball. Burns and Sibley did exactly that, seeing off the threat of Rabada and Philander, although Rabada surprisingly only bowled three overs in his first spell before making way for Nortje.
Sibley looked less comfortable against the spin of Maharaj than against the faster bowlers. He was tied down by the spinner before trying to punch a shorter ball off the back foot and hitting back a simple one back at Maharaj to catch.
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