Zak Crawley of England and Dom Sibley are the top scorers after the first two session against the Proteas in PE. Photo: Deryck Foster/BackpagePix

PORT ELIZABETH - England lost both openers after lunch as they moved slowly past three figures and were 117-2 at tea on the opening day of the third test against South Africa at St George's Park on Thursday.

Zak Crawley hit a test high score of 44 and Dom Sibley 36 as England were suffocated by the spin of Keshav Maharaj as South Africa's bowlers battled to get anything out of a flat pitch under a hot and humid sun.

Joe Denly and captain Joe Root were both on 13 not out.

England were looking to build a considerable first innings score and made a positive start to go to lunch 61 without loss but were immediately put under pressure in the afternoon session.

Sibley, who scored an unbeaten 133 in the second test in Cape Town to help England to level the series just over a week ago, was the first wicket to fall shortly after the lunch break, caught by Dean Elgar at backward square leg off Kagiso Rabada.

Crawley was also caught at backward square leg with a diving effort by Rassie van der Dussen off Anrich Nortje's bowling.

Maharaj bowled 16 successive overs in the session, finishing with figures of 19-9-22-0.

Denly proved patient as he faced 83 balls for his 13 runs but Root's approach was much more aggressive and he did offer a chance soon after coming out, top-edging a sweep off Maharaj that fell just short of fielder Nortje.

Root had elected to bat at the start of play as South Africa captain Faf du Plessis lost the toss for a sixth successive test.

England left out Jofra Archer and picked Mark Wood to replace James Anderson, who went home after the second test as a broken rib cut short his tour.

Archer had been in contention to replace Anderson, but has an elbow injury which flared up again on Wednesday in practice.

South Africa handed a debut to 30-year-old Dane Paterson, who is the top bowler in domestic cricket and was chosen for his ability to get reverse swing out of the old ball. His opening nine overs cost 26 runs.

Paterson took the place of all-rounder Dwaine Pretorius in the team.