JOHANNESBURG // As centuries go, Graeme Smith's 20th Test hundred may well be one of the most crucial. But the South African captain survived a moment of real drama which threatened to bring cricket, and especially the new Umpire Decision Referral Scheme, into disrepute yesterday. On 15, Smith appeared to nick behind to Matt Prior off Ryan Sidebottom and umpire Tony Hill refused to raise his finger. England referred but amazingly the third umpire, Daryl Harper, did not hear the noise - despite millions around the world listening to it on television.
After the close of play, and with Smith having gone on to make 105, the England team director, Andy Flower, said they would make an official complaint about the decision. While various questions were asked - with the host broadcaster SABC bizarrely claiming that Harper had access to the stump microphone but did not turn the sound up - Smith ignored the controversy to register one of his best innings and sixth century against England.
The opener bludgeoned a below-par England attack before departing just before a torrential storm which forced the players off for more than three hours and presented England with an undeserved glimmer of hope. South Africa eventually closed day two of the final Test on 215 for two, a lead of 35. Rain - and the forecast suggests more inconsistent weather is around in the coming days - is now England's best chance of saving the game and keeping their 1-0 series lead.
Andrew Strauss's men have been lacking in almost every single department in this Test match. The surrender by their batsmen on Thursday was followed by a bowling display which lacked the ruthlessness that South Africa's attack showed. England's pacemen had looked on song earlier in the day though. After Sidebottom had been thwarted in claiming the wicket of Smith, England got a legitimate one in the very next over. Ashwell Prince was caught at second slip by Graeme Swann off Stuart Broad for 19, but Smith firmly made the most of his let-off at the other end.
The Proteas captain, who had started scratchily, took on all of England's bowlers, smashing the ball to all parts of the ground. Hashim Amla started to get going too, cover driving Anderson for consecutive boundaries to bring up the 50 partnership. England struggled to get much out of a pitch on which Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel had taken eight wickets between them on Thursday, and Smith passed fifty with two consecutive boundaries off Broad, which also brought up the 100 partnership.
Amla, too, continued his fine form in the series, bringing up his fifty off Anderson as the hosts eased to a position of total control at 160 for one at lunch. The pair continued to lay into the England bowlers as Amla pushed Anderson off the back foot to the boundary and Smith opened the face through third man to give South Africa the lead. Smith smashed Sidebottom for another back-foot boundary to bring up three figures but he was eventually out.
Sidebottom, on his 32nd birthday, at last picked up some movement off the wicket, the ball took Smith's edge and Strauss grasped a fine catch in his midriff at first slip. After the rain break, in which 37 overs were lost, Amla helped himself towards 73 not out in the 15 further minutes possible before bad light finally stopped play. England will be desperate for more inclement weather if they are to rescue the game. But if play can continue for more than 200 overs of the remaining 294 scheduled, it is difficult to see any way out at all for the visitors. @Email:email@example.com
England (first innings) 180 South Africa (first innings, overnight 29-0): Graeme Smith c Strauss b Sidebottom 105 Ashwell Prince c Swann b Broad 19 Hashim Amla batting 73 Jacques Kallis batting 7 Extras: (1b, 4lb, 5w, 1nb) 11 Total: (for 2 wickets, 63.2) 215 Fall of wickets: 1-36, 2-201. Bowling: James Anderson 17-3-65-0 (1nb) Ryan Sidebottom 17.2-4-49-1 Stuart Broad 16-3-52-1 (1w) Graeme Swann 9-0-35-0 Paul Collingwood 4-1-9-0.