Ben Stokes dug in to help England recover to 224-4 against South Africa at stumps on the opening day of the crucial third test in Port Elizabeth overnight.
Allrounder Stokes, crowned world player of the year this week for some scintillating performances with his bat, showed he can also play cautiously when required.
And it was.
England was back in control — if only slightly — at the close having taken the initiative at 61-0 at lunch and then lost it when captain Joe Root fell to leave the tourists 148-4 after tea.
Stokes was 38 not out off 86 deliveries. He put on 76 with Ollie Pope (39 not out) and the pair also saw off 10 overs of the second new ball right at the end of the day.
The four-match series is level at 1-1 and an England victory in Port Elizabeth would ensure it can't lose the contest. It would also put England in position for a second straight series win in South Africa.
England was solid through the first session on a benign St. George's Park pitch that threatened to be very hard toil for the bowlers over the first few days. Root won the toss and England jumped at the chance to bat first and keep the momentum following a series-tying victory in the second test in Cape Town.
The pitch dictated a ponderous day, with England grinding out a good start and South Africa struggling to make any prolonged impact with its fast-bowling attack.
“It was very attritional cricket wasn’t it?” England opening batsman Zak Crawley asked. “It was a very good day for us in the end. Popey and Stokesy played brilliantly for us.”
Openers Dom Sibley (36) and Crawley (44) were both unbeaten at lunch but both fell to almost carbon-copy dismissals to set the tourists back temporarily in the afternoon.
Getting nothing from the surface, South Africa eventually set legside traps for Sibley and Crawley. They both fell for it. Sibley clipped a rising Kagiso Rabada delivery off his hip to be caught by Dean Elgar at short backward square leg. Crawley fell to a diving catch in the same position by Rassie van der Dussen, this time off Anrich Nortje.
Joe Denly went lbw to left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj for 25 after a TV review.
Root was out three overs and 14 runs later for South Africa's biggest breakthrough of the day.
Rabada clean bowled him on 27, knocking back the off stump with a ball that kept low, and the fast bowler celebrated with both fists pumping out in front of his chest.
Stokes and Pope blunted the South African attack after that — with the help of the pitch.
“It was hard work,” South Africa bowling coach Charl Langeveldt said. "It’s one of those wickets. It's hard to take wickets."
The pitch is renowned as being one of South Africa's slowest but appeared especially sluggish for England's first test in Port Elizabeth since 2004.
South Africa's problems were exacerbated by a confusing game plan in the morning, when strike bowler Rabada, who had the best figures of 2-48, wasn't used first up when the pitch was at its most spritely. Rabada's frontline pace partner Vernon Philander bowled just 11 overs the whole day.
Expectations are that St. George's will offer its traditional reverse swing and spin as the test goes on, and break up in the heat. The team that bats second — South Africa — will have the toughest time.
“If we can get in the late 300s, that's a very good score on this pitch,” Crawley said.
England won that 2004 test and another victory 16 years later will put it in touching distance of the series prize with the final test following on quickly in Johannesburg.
England made one team change, an enforced move following the series-ending rib injury for veteran fast bowler James Anderson in Cape Town. The tourists recalled fast bowler Mark Wood for his first test since last February.
South Africa also made one change, a clear reaction to the pitch. Seamer Dane Paterson was brought in for his test debut to bolster the bowling. Paterson finished his first day of test cricket with 0-46 off 15 overs.
South Africa has lost its last two test series and the pressure, on England at the start of this contest, is now heavily on the home team.