Ben Stokes dug in to help England recover to 224-4 against South Africa at stumps on the opening day of the crucial third test in Port Elizabeth on Thursday.
Stokes, crowned world player of the year this week for some scintillating performances, showed he can also play cautiously when required.
England was back in control — if only slightly — at the close having taken the initiative at 61-0 at lunch and then lost it when captain Joe Root fell to leave the tourists 148-4 after tea.
Stokes was 38 not out off 86 deliveries. He put on 76 with Ollie Pope (39 not out) and the pair also saw off 10 overs of the second new ball right at the end of the day.
The four-match series is level at 1-1 and an England victory in Port Elizabeth would ensure it can't lose the contest. It would also put England in position for a second straight series win in South Africa.
England was solid through the first session on a benign St. George's Park pitch that threatened to be very hard toil for the bowlers. Root won the toss and England jumped at the chance to bat first and keep the momentum following a series-tying victory in the second test in Cape Town.
Openers Dom Sibley (36) and Zak Crawley (44) were both unbeaten at lunch but both fell to almost carbon-copy dismissals to set the tourists back in the afternoon.
Struggling to get some life out the pitch, South Africa eventually set legside traps for Sibley and Crawley. They both fell for it. Sibley clipped a rising Kagiso Rabada delivery off his hip to be caught by Dean Elgar at short backward square leg. Crawley fell to a diving catch in the same position by Rassie van der Dussen, this time off Anrich Nortje.
Joe Denly fell lbw to left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj for 25 after a TV review.
Root was out three overs and 14 runs later for South Africa's biggest breakthrough of the day.
Rabada clean bowled him on 27, knocking back the off stump and celebrating with both fists pumping out in front of his chest.
Stokes and Pope blunted the South African attack after that.
The pitch is renowned as being one of South Africa's slowest but appeared especially slow for England's first test in Port Elizabeth since 2004.
Expectations are that St. George's will offer its traditional reverse swing and spin as the test goes on, and the team that bats second — South Africa — will have the toughest time.
England won that 2004 test by seven wickets and another victory 16 years later will put the touring team in touching distance of the series prize with the final test following on quickly in Johannesburg.
England made one team change, an enforced move following the series-ending rib injury for veteran fast bowler James Anderson in Cape Town. The tourists recalled fast bowler Mark Wood for his first test since last February. Injuries have contributed to Wood playing just five tests in over four years before his return at Port Elizabeth.
Jofra Archer still hasn't recovered from a right elbow injury, while Wood was favored over Chris Woakes despite his long periods out of the test team.
South Africa also made one change, a clear reaction to the pitch. Seamer Dane Paterson was brought in for his test debut to bolster the bowling. South Africa likes his ability to get the old ball to reverse swing. Allrounder Dwaine Pretorius missed out and South Africa gambled on six specialist batsmen being enough to regain the initiative in the series.
South Africa has lost its last two test series and the pressure, on England at the start of this contest, is now heavily on the home team.