London: England were left reeling at 16 for 2 by Vernon Philander's twin strikes on Sunday after being set a daunting target of 346 to win the third Test against South Africa and retain its No. 1 Test ranking.
Philander trapped both openers lbw in the 13 overs left on the fourth day after South Africa were bowled out for 351 at Lord's. Philander claimed 2 for 4 after also making 35 useful runs while Hashim Amla hit an elegant 121 before Steven Finn took 4 for 74 to give the hosts a slender chance.
"It was fantastic to get two big wickets and that's put us in a very good position," Amla said. "But we do realize there's a lot of hard work to do, it's a good wicket to bat on. Any score above 300 is a big ask, we've been in that situation before. In fact, any score above 250 is a big ask on a wicket that's going to deteriorate."
Finn insisted England wouldn't play for a draw. "We want to win tomorrow and we believe we can win tomorrow," he said. "We're going to get a ball that's 15 overs old to bat with, which obviously isn't going to do as much as a new ball, and we've got an opportunity to assert ourselves on the South Africans early."
England will have to surpass its highest successful run chase of 332, which was achieved in in 1928 against Australia, to level the three-match series at 1-1 and hold off South Africa's surge to the top of the Test rankings.
The only wicket to fall in a one-sided morning session was nightwatchman Dale Steyn, who was removed by Stuart Broad after batting for 42 minutes on Sunday to frustrate England.
After South Africa resumed on 145 for 3, Steyn was hit on the left hand as he tried to fend off a bouncer from Finn in the first over of the morning. Steyn was eventually out for 9, caught at short leg by James Taylor, after a partnership of 33 with Amla. But the hosts then missed a huge chance in the 62nd over.
Having hit his first two deliveries for four, AB de Villiers was on 8 when he was bamboozled by Graeme Swann, chipping him to midwicket. Anderson, falling forward, somehow failed to hold the catch and the feeling that England had just 'dropped the mace' — the trophy held by the world's top-ranked Test side — set in.
Wicketkeeper Matt Prior had already dropped Amla, then on 2, on Saturday night. The batting pair had put on an unbroken stand of 52 by lunch. Amla cut Jonathan Trott for four to bring up his century in the 78th over but, with the game drifting away from England, Finn produced an unplayable delivery that crashed into Amla's off stump in the 89th over.
England used its final referral after umpire Kumar Dharmasena ruled de Villiers was not out lbw to Anderson in the next over. However, replays showed the ball would have clipped the bails by less than the margin needed to overturn the call.
In the next over, de Villiers edged Finn to Strauss for 43. It was Strauss's 121st catch in test cricket, an England record, but the captain then missed a difficult one-handed chance to snare JP Duminy off Swann.
It was England's ninth dropped catch of the series but the hosts shrugged off the blow, with Finn having Jacques Rudolph caught behind for 11 in the 97th. At tea, England still had realistic hopes of victory, but these grew increasingly distant as Duminy and Philander put on 54 for the eighth wicket.
Philander eventually departed when he cut a long hop from Anderson to Jonny Bairstow at point. Morne Morkel successfully referred umpire Simon Taufel's decision to give him caught behind to a ball that actually hit the grill of his helmet, but after lifting his back foot for a split second he was given out stumped off Swann by the third umpire for 9. Anderson concluded the innings when he bowled Imran Tahir for 1, leaving Duminy on 26 not out.
But England's chase got off to a disastrous start when Philander had Alastair Cook lbw for 3 with the eighth ball. Strauss fell in Philander's next over, lbw without offering a shot for 1 and from this position England will do well to save the Test, let alone win it.