England's Rory Burns plays a shot during day 3 of the first Test against South Africa at Supersport Park in Centurion on Saturday. Photo: Catherine Kotze/BackpagePix

PRETORIA –  England’s openers helped turn what was a sour Saturday for the tourists into something which may provide sweet reward on Sunday. 

Rory Burns and Dominic Sibley eased the pressure on England's middle order, bought their skipper Joe Root some extra time to recover the flu bug and gave their side a solid start in pursuit of a target, that should it be reached would be the highest fourth innings total to win a Test match in this country. 

There are ‘only’ 255 more runs to get and memories of Headingley this year when England achieved its highest successful final innings total to win a game will be flooding around in the players’ heads. On that occasion it was a one man show, but here, the start provided by Burns and Sibley has eased the load for Ben Stokes. 

Burns had some good fortune; he was given out lbw in the first over against Kagiso Rabada, and correctly reviewed with on-field umpire Chris Gaffney’s decision being over-turned as replays showed the ball to be missing the off-stump. Another opportunity arose with Burns on 24, when he was dropped by Rassie van der Dussen at first slip. Just like in the first innings when Van der Dussen shelled a chance offered by Joe Denly, again he appeared to be put off by Quinton de Kock diving in front of him and it is clear those two need to chat about the spacing between them. 

The left-hand opener made the most of those two chances, dispatching any loose balls elegantly and hustling sharply between the wickets. Sibley was less attractive on the eye. It made for a painful two hours of viewing, but he did the job asked of him. Batting on this surface is noticeably easier against the older, softer ball, and those to come will be grateful for his efforts. 

Personally he looked pretty ill to get out, chipping a ball back to Keshav Maharaj after making 29, and opening the door for the hosts who were starting to look a little concerned. 

Maharaj caused more than a few problems; getting a couple to turn passed the outside edge while subtle changes of pace messed with the batsmen’s timing. 

He created a chance in the last over of the day when Burns edged one just out of the reach of a diving Faf du Plessis at slip. It was a moment that lifted South African spirits and something they will carry with them into Sunday. The availability of a second new ball after lunch will be another reason for optimism.    

The trouble of course is, knowing how to win, something they haven’t done in a Test match since January, with five consecutive defeats following that win against Pakistan at the Wanderers. That will start to play on minds if there are no early in-roads on Sunday. 

The first session was fun for the Proteas. England were put off by Van der Dussen and Anrich Nortje’s ‘drop-and-run’ plan, which at times left viewers hearts in mouths as they dived to make their ground but mostly worked well, irritating England. Van der Dussen played in that composed manner for which he is quickly becoming known, unfurling some elegant drives in one over again Broad. Nortje meanwhile, who was greeted with groans when he came out to bat as nightwatchman on Friday, grew into his role as play passed the half hour mark. 

He correctly reviewed after being dismissed when the ball brushed his shoulder, but otherwise was in tune with the quick singles strategy. He blocked the good balls, left those that were wide of the off-stump and when the occasion called for it, produced some lovely shots - including one straight drive off Jofra Archer that went for four. 

England were flummoxed and the flu-bug that has hit their camp, which claimed Jos Buttler before the start of play then forced Joe Root off the field, although he would return later, not looking in great shape. 

England tried bouncing out Nortje, bruising him the ribs, but overdid that strategy, as South Sfrica dominated the opening session scoring 125 runs in 24 overs. South Africa ended up giving England a target of 376 to win, 121 of those have been knocked. Sunday should be a lot of fun.

@shockerhess

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