Joe Root insists England’s late revival means they are still in contention despite South Africa controlling day one of the fourth Test.
With the series already secured in the tourists’ favour, the Proteas posted 329-5 at Centurion courtesy of a debut hundred from 33-year-old Stephen Cook and a 25th ton from Hashim Amla.
But it might have been even worse for England after they went in for tea at 224-1, and with most of their bowling attack struggling for rhythm.
The evening session brought four more wickets as England scrapped for a foothold but an unbroken stand of 56 between Temba Bavuma and Quinton de Kock ensured the batting side closed on top.
Root was in defiant mood after play, plotting a way for his side to reclaim the initiative.
“I thought it was a great comeback from our lads if I’m honest,” he said. “We missed our lengths at times, especially early on, but the way we fought back and came into the game was a really good effort.
“The start of that last session is our benchmark for tomorrow morning
“The effort from everyone in the field, and with ball in hand, was great. If we can get a couple of early wickets we can get in a really good position.
“We’ve got all the players to still pull a win from this game. It’s about how we react in the morning to combat what they’ve done today.”
England’s bowlers, who performed so ruthlessly to secure the Basil D’Oliveira Trophy in Johannesburg, were slow to move through the gears after being sent in to the field.
James Anderson, the target of a gentle verbal nudge from AB de Villiers on the eve of the Test, finished with nought for 70 and the recalled Chris Woakes was unusually erratic.
He at least had the wicket of Cook to celebrate, but an economy rate of 4.62 told a more accurate story.
“More than anything you have to look at it being a good wicket and the fact we weren’t at our best in that first session,” said Root.
“That sort of sets the tone, which can happen sometimes. Even though they’ve got fantastic records our bowlers are human.
“They do make mistakes and for me the most important thing was how we came back and reacted.”
England’s troubled morning was brightened by an unusual catch by James Taylor at short leg.
It was a less elegant affair than his brace of superb grabs at the Wanderers, ending with him reaching around his back to retrieve the ball from between his legs, but it got England going at a time when chances were thin on the ground.
“From where I was standing at mid-on it did look a bit bizarre where he plucked it from,” said a smiling Root.
“But the reaction from him was brilliant. The first reaction is to drop your head or try and get out of the way, so credit to him for the work he puts in in practice.”
Stephen Cook revealed a phone call from his father Jimmy – who turned out for his country in 1992 – helped set him up for a hundred on debut. Cook junior was happy to avoid his father’s debut fate, when he fell for a golden duck at the hands of India’s Kapil Dev.
On this occasion Cook was offered a leg stump half-volley by James Anderson and gladly whipped it to the boundary to kick off a five-hour 115 that helped the Proteas to 329 for five at stumps.
“Last night before bed he called me and said ‘boy, if you don’t get out to the first one you’re already better than me’, so I was really glad to get that first one off the pads,” he said. “I saw him at the end and he came over and said he was really proud of me.”