England were left a record fourth-innings chase of 382 or four-and-a-half sessions to save the fourth Test against South Africa at Centurion.
After James Anderson kicked off the fourth day with two quickfire wickets, Hashim Amla (96) and Temba Bavuma (78 not out) carefully manoeuvred their side into a position of dominance but there will be serious questions over the delayed declaration.
South Africa batted with extreme caution on the fourth afternoon, scoring just 102 runs despite having wickets in hand, then continued into the evening before a 70-minute rain delay forced AB de Villiers’ hand.
Discounting the tainted Hansie Cronje Test of 2000, when England made 251, the biggest chase on this ground is the home side’s 226 for four in 1998.
That makes a draw England’s most likely aim and they will have welcomed the home side’s curious decision-making, which was mitigated only by concerns over the fitness of seam bowler Kyle Abbott.
With South Afrcia 42 for one overnight, nothing but early wickets would do if England were to find a foothold.
Anderson has had a series to forget, missing the opener through injury then struggling for rhythm and – according to De Villiers – pace.
But having removed Dean Elgar with a beauty on the previous evening, he summoned his best spell of the tour.
After two overs for one run he struck at the start of his third, Stephen Cook tempted forward and feathering a simple catch to Jonny Bairstow.
That brought De Villiers to the crease and Anderson needed just two balls to prove actions speak louder than words.
The crucial delivery clocked in at 86mph, not enough to beat De Villiers on speed alone, but it was also perfectly pitched and tailing in prodigiously.
De Villiers reviewed the lbw decision but it merely confirmed his second duck of the match and third in a row since taking the captaincy.
Having made nought only four times in his previous 172 Test innings, De Villiers may be giving strong consideration to handing the reins on at the end of series.
England were buoyant but hit a brick wall in Amla and JP Duminy.
They put on 57 vital runs, extending the fourth innings chase bit by bit, in 20 solid overs.
Amla appeared well at ease, soaking up balls until seeing one he fancied and stroking it to the ropes.
Duminy also played his part, scoring 18 of his 29 runs off Moeen Ali including a crisp six over midwicket.
He was unable to get on top of Ben Stokes in the same way, failing to negotiate the swing and edging a big drive to Bairstow.
Amla suffered a second blow to the hand of the innings after reaching 50 and Bavuma saw off 27 deliveries to reach lunch.
The middle session effectively saw both sides maintain a holding pattern.
The England attack bowled diligently to defensive fields and, for the most part, Amla and Bavuma settled for gentle accumulation.
Neither batsman attempted to up the ante, though Moeen and Chris Woakes proved less able to apply the handbrake than Anderson, Stuart Broad and Stokes.
While England saw their hopes of victory recede heavily as time went on, the lack of tempo arguably increased the prospects of a draw.
Minor milestones ticked by – the 300 lead, South Africa’s 200, Bavuma’s second Test 50 – but the real business was yet to get under way.
Broad finally ended Amla’s stay four short of his second century of the match, but De Villiers allowed Bavuma to continue on until a passing storm made the declaration a formality.