South Africa is still the favorite after setting England 376 to win but not as overwhelmingly so when England's second innings started just before tea at SuperSport Park. Rory Burns led England's valiant resistance with 77 not out at the close. Joe Denly was 10 not out with Dom Sibley the only casualty so far, caught and bowled for 29 by left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj.
England made major progress after being all but written off. England needs the third-highest fourth-innings score ever made in South Africa to win the series opener. It would be the highest winning chase ever in South Africa after the other two innings were made in draws.
It would also replace the forever tarnished 251-8 England made at this same ground in 2000 as the team's highest score to win a test in South Africa. That game is always remembered not for England's chase but for South Africa captain Hansie Cronje instigating declarations by both teams to set up a result. At the time, it was received as a sporting move to make a game out of a weather-affected test. It's been under a cloud ever since Cronje was later banned for life from cricket for involvement in match-fixing.
South Africa had a clear advantage at Centurion earlier on Saturday when its middle and lower order batting fired in its second innings — and England's fast bowlers tired. Rassie van der Dussen made 51 on his test debut to go with the half-centuries he made for his country on his one-day and Twenty20 debuts. Vernon Philander added 46 and Quinton de Kock cracked a quickfire 34. Anrich Nortje perhaps frustrated the English bowlers most when he hung around for a career-best 40 after coming in the evening before as a nightwatchman tasked only with not getting out.
De Kock's first two scoring shots were sixes over square leg off fast bowler Jofra Archer to make clear his intention to ram home South Africa's supremacy. The upshot was that South Africa, 72-4 overnight in its second innings, made 272 all out to move into a dominant position.
Archer finished with 5-102 but the damage was already done by the time he completed his third test five-wicket haul. At that point, England was worn down by illness as well as the opposition. Captain Joe Root and wicketkeeper Jos Buttler were the latest players to be affected by a flu-like bug that's hit at least nine of England's squad members and two of its backroom staff over the last week.
Buttler didn't take any part in the day's play and was replaced behind the stumps by batsman Jonny Bairstow, who is also an experienced wicketkeeper. Root was on and off the field for treatment and was in quarantine with Buttler at the ground at one point.
There were also outward signs of frustration in the England camp when vice captain Ben Stokes and veteran fast bowler Stuart Broad exchanged words in what appeared to be a heated disagreement in a team huddle after a South African wicket fell. Stokes walked away from the huddle but the two later made up with a fist pump.
And yet England made a brave stand at the end of the day. Burns survived an lbw dismissal right at the beginning of his innings by successfully reviewing. He was also dropped early and then edged just out of South Africa captain Faf du Plessis' reach on the second-last ball of the day.
But Burns rode his luck brilliantly with gritty application in defense and a good dose of flowing shots for his 11 fours. England will be harking back to five months ago and Leeds, when Stokes' 135 not out carried it past a target of 359 and to a scarcely believable victory against Australia.
South Africa will avoid thinking about how it failed to defend 304 against Sri Lanka this year on the way to losing a series at home for the first time in three years.
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