Steven Finn gave England a flying start to their must-win third Test before JP Duminy stalled home progress on a first day of fluctuating fortunes at Lord's yesterday.
Finn struck three times in seven balls in the morning, after James Anderson had administered the first blow with the wicket of the South Africa captain Graeme Smith. Both pace bowlers ended the day with three wickets each.
But from 54 for four, South Africa dug in to make up for early losses on a predictably even surface to close on 262 for seven - thanks in large part to Duminy (61) and Vernon Philander.
Finn said he and his teammates were pleased with how they stood in the match despite South Africa's fightback.
He told Sky Sports: "We bowled well. We bowled in partnerships well today. They aren't away from us - they only scored at three an over.
"It would have been nice [to bowl South Africa out] but it is good that we stuck to our guns. No one got away from us and when the sun is out here it's a good place to bat."
England need victory here to share the series and stop their opponents knocking them off the top of the world Test rankings.
They could hardly have hoped for any better in the first session, after Smith - setting a world record as captain for the 94th time in a Test match - chose to bat first under cloud cover.
England's pace bowlers found movement in the air, and a little off the seam to make life difficult for Smith and Alviro Petersen, and it was Smith who fell first as he was given out by the DRS system after originally being given not out after nicking an Anderson delivery to Matt Prior behind the stumps.
Much more was required, though, while overhead conditions continued to favour the bowlers, and Finn did not disappoint on his home ground, having been chosen ahead of Tim Bresnan.
First a little extra bounce undid Petersen, who gloved a catch behind down the leg side.
Jacques Kallis was off the mark with a leg-side single first ball - putting Hashim Amla back on strike, where he was to depart to a very good delivery, bowled between bat and pad by Finn.
England's 6ft 8in seamer was not finished either. He took his third wicket for just three runs when Kallis became the second batsman to go caught behind to him down the leg side.
This time it seemed, after England again reviewed umpire Kumar Dharmasena's initial not out verdict, that the bottom glove might well have been off the handle when it was hit.
But after much deliberation, and to the obvious dismay and disbelief of Smith and others on the South African balcony, third umpire Rod Tucker ruled otherwise.
After lunch England kept the pressure on, and some good bowling from Anderson was rewarded as AB de Villiers was caught at third slip by Alastair Cook to end a stand of 51 with Jacques Rudolph.
The latter continued the fight back in the second of three consecutive half-century stands, alongside Duminy, until the left-handed alliance for the sixth wicket was broken soon after tea when Rudolph edged on to his stumps as he tried to work Graeme Swann to leg.
But Duminy and Philander then frustrated England as the afternoon wore on.
Philander rode his luck, especially against the short ball, on his way past his previous career-best 29 to 46 not out - and Duminy, who has had his struggles in the past against Swann in particular, kept out 157 balls.
His six boundaries were hard-earned, and it was not until Anderson returned with the second new ball that Duminy reached out at a wider delivery on the back foot and got a bottom edge to give Prior his fourth catch of the day.
The highest stand of the innings, worth 72, had nonetheless restricted England's advantage, and a power cut took out two banks of floodlights to help bring an early close as the clouds rolled in again.
* Press Association
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