SOUTH AFRICA'S 29-year-old debutant Friedel de Wet pushed England to the brink of defeat at Centurion last night with a fiery new ball spell which had 9,000 sun-baked Centurion fans on the edge of their grassy hillocks.
In the end, his phenomenal spell was not quite enough. England ended 228-9 with Graham Onions surviving a torrid last over from Makhaya Ntini to roars from the Barmy Army... and groans from the locals.
Unsung hero Paul Collingwood played his part too, looking on from the other end as the tail collapsed around him. He ended with 26 off 99, but like his obdurate resistance against Australia at the first Test in Cardiff last summer, it was worth at least twice that.
But in truth, the afternoon belonged to De Wet, who finally ended local disputes over his selection when he tore through the England late order just as safety was arriving over the cloudless horizon. Taking the new ball with England apparently secure at 205-5 with 13 overs to come, he got the stubborn Jonathan Trott, the hopeless Ian Bell and the non-batting wicketkeeper Matt Prior in quick succession.
Then, from the other end, South Africa's barely-spinning slow bowler Paul Harris got Stuart Broad to edge one and, after a painful review, he too was gone and England were 206-8. They'd lost four wickets for four runs in seven overs.
Last week there was a reported dispute between chief selector Mike Procter and coach Mickey Arthur about picking De Wet, who bowls for the Lions of Johannesburg, ahead of Wayne Parnell.
But Procter held firm and when Dale Steyn pulled up with his hamstring on the morning of the match, it was De Wet who stepped up, bowling a massive Steve Harmison-style wide with his first ball.
But he has improved steadily throughout this game and with the pitch finally showing some bounce - as opposed to the odd, low scuttler - from the Hennops River end, he came to life.
That initial new ball spell, four overs, three maidens, three wickets for two runs, will live long in the memory. First Trott hurt his thumb trying to fend off an absolute snorter and AB De Villiers took a sensational one-handed catch at first slip. Trott was gone for a fine 69 off 212 balls.
But Ian Bell, who left a straight one in the first innings, lasted just four overs before he fished at De Wet and wicketkeeper Mark Boucher took another fine, one-handed catch to his right.
Next up? Matt Prior. Our non-batting wicketkeeper. He was gone in a trice, another edge to Boucher, nine balls, no runs.
With the much-loved Ntini, winning his 100th cap here, having no such luck with the new ball, captain Graeme Smith turned to his gentle spinner Paul Harris, who took five wickets in the first innings. And it worked a treat. Stuart Broad, who relishes situations like this, prodded at Harris's fourth ball and the entire team of close-in fielders went up, as did the umpire's finger.
Broad, on nought, nil, nada, quack-quack after seven balls, demanded a review - his father Chris is, after all, a match referee and he'd felt hard-done-by first time round - but the television just confirmed what we knew already. A substantial touch to Boucher, who had now taken three catches in four overs.
But of course, England's secret weapon had yet to come out to join the canny Collingwood, who got a quiet half-century in the first innings.
Graeme Swann. Five wickets in the first innings, none in the second. A Test-best 85 in the first innings and a massive job to do here with seven-and-a-half overs left. The crowd were in good voice, the Barmy Army attempting to out-sing the locals. Bedlam. Everyone had been asleep half an hour before.
While Durham’s Graham Onions sat nervously in the dressing room to our right, Swann and Collingwood plugged away, attempting to stem De Wet's tide and seeing off Harris.
Six to go, five to go, four... but then Smith turned to Morne Morkel, his third paceman. Remember, the injured Steyn is currently the world’s No1.
And bang, with his fifth ball, he catches Swann in front. The finger goes up. They call for a review, but it’s too close. We have to stick with the on-field umpire. He’s gone for two off 22 balls.
Onions to face Morkel’s final ball. He survives.
Three to go. One wicket to fall.
Before De Wet’s arrival, this game had been dead, killed by the two South Africa-born batsman, Kevin Pietersen and Trott.
Even when KP ran himself out suicidally an over after tea for a fine 81, England still looked safe at 4-172. The crowd were starting to go home, the caterers were packing up.
But while we fiddled, Friedel burned with ambition. And when the new ball was thrown to him, he finally produced the kind of bowling South Africa have been calling out for throughout this sun-burnt Test.
So to the penultimate over. Onions survives three from Morkel with reasonable aplomb but then, inexplicably, takes a single off the fourth, a Yorker which nearly squirted through.
Collingwood goes for the single off the fifth... hoping to face De Wet’s last over. But he overcooks it. The ball reaches the boundary and he’s sent back with another four to his name, and he can’t get the last one away.
So it’s Onions to face the final over from Makhaya the Magnificent. Controversially, De Wet is rested after a spell of seven overs, 3-11. I’ll take you through it.
1: Gets a bat on a widish one, but not the full bat.
2: Plays and misses. Close to an edge. We’re all edgy.
3: Solid, right behind a good ball.
4: Gets a bat on it in front of his pads, plumb in front.
5: Solid, could have had a single cover.
6: A huge roar from the Barmy Army as Onions survives. He turns to the flag-waving Brits in their corner, and shows a fist. He’s done it. A 12-ball knock for one run, but it’s worth a roar. England have survived for a draw.
We live to fight another day. In Durban on Boxing Day for the second Test, where rain is predicted.