Jonny Bairstow fell agonisingly short of a maiden Test century on a day of much frustration but some late consolation too for England in their Lord’s showdown with South Africa.
Graeme Swann helped to eke out a total of 315 for a six-run first-innings lead, despite Bairstow’s departure just before lunch on day three of this third Investec Test.
England then struggled to make inroads with the ball on a scorching afternoon and evening, but Steven Finn’s dismissal of Jacques Kallis shortly before stumps kept a titanic contest in the balance.
South Africa closed on 145 for three, leaving England with renewed hope that they could yet win here to salvage a drawn series and stop the tourists taking away their world number one Test status.
Bairstow (95), playing only because England dropped Kevin Pietersen in controversial circumstances, dug the hosts out of trouble yesterday.
But he got stuck in the 90s this morning and was bowled playing across the line at Morne Morkel (four for 80).
Every run was vital in England’s mission improbable to overturn the momentum South Africa have established in this short series, and the morale boost of a feelgood hundred from Bairstow would have been a big help too.
It was not quite to be, though, for the young Yorkshireman, who has been granted an unexpectedly early second chance at the highest level this summer thanks to Pietersen’s omission.
He failed to convince in three matches against West Indies and was left out when this heavyweight battle at the top of the International Cricket Council table began at The Oval last month.
But after England chose to drop Pietersen, over his initial failure to apologise for text messages sent to opposition players during the drawn Headingley Test, Bairstow was still first in line to replace him.
The 22-year-old rose to the challenge and dealt with considerable pressure too, after coming to the crease at 54 for four.
He made no mistake until, with three figures in sight, he lost his way.
Bairstow and sixth-wicket partner Matt Prior saw England through the first eight overs this morning to the second new ball, but no further.
Prior edged a drive to slip to Vernon Philander’s very first delivery after the new ball was taken.
Philander continued to find exaggerated swing against Stuart Broad, but both the new batsman and Bairstow found their scoring opportunities to take England ever closer to South Africa’s total until the left-hander fended a ball from Dale Steyn (four for 94) straight to short-leg.
With Bairstow finally gone too, his 196-ball stay including 15 deliveries on 95, it seemed first-innings parity would be beyond the hosts.
But Swann had other ideas, and received enough support from numbers 10 and 11 James Anderson and Finn - in a last-wicket stand of 32 - to put England in minor credit.
Graeme Smith and Alviro Petersen comfortably wiped that out by tea, but neither could get significantly further.
Smith was drawn into the sweep against Swann, got his angles wrong and went lbw to a routine off-break; then, after Broad saw Hashim Amla (57no) escape a half-chance on just two off a glove down the leg-side to a diving Prior, he struck two balls later when Petersen missed some inswing and was also lbw.
Two wickets had fallen for only four runs, but Amla was joined by Kallis - a dreaded combination for England following the same pair’s record triple-century stand in South Africa’s first-Test victory south of the Thames.
They again proved a substantial barrier to England progress, this time with a stand of 81 which ended only when Kallis - much to his dismay after reviewing umpire Simon Taufel’s decision in the apparent belief he had hit the ball - became South Africa’s third successive lbw departure.
Part of his aggravation stemmed perhaps from his more evident DRS misfortune, when ruled caught-behind in the first innings.
The seamers continued their skilful toil, but Swann often seemed to be England’s best hope as the ball began to grip on an increasingly sun-baked surface.
Despite a series of credible lbw appeals against Amla, the off-spinner was unable to turn the equation significantly his team’s way yet - but they will nonetheless be able to start again tomorrow knowing all is far from lost.