Andrew Flintoff inspired England's Churchillian defiance at Centurion which had put the tourists within touching distance of an historic Test series win.

On the 40th anniversary of Winston Churchill's death, Lancastrian all-rounder Flintoff masterminded the resistance against South Africa - a country last beaten on home soil by the English as many years ago.

England went into the fourth day with plenty of work ahead to ensure they secured a first-innings lead on a surface of increasingly low bounce; they finished it with an advantage of 53 and with half-a-chance of making the score 3-1.

By the close the irrepressible Flintoff, in possibly his last appearance this winter, had ripped out two of South Africa's top order in a hostile new-ball spell.

Playing only by virtue of having a cortisone injection in his troublesome left ankle - which could require surgery in the near future - Flintoff followed up his first-innings haul of four for 44 with the dismissals of Herschelle Gibbs and Andrew Hall.

Opener Gibbs was adjudged caught behind in the sixth over, and Hall followed in the 12th when he was bowled off-stump off his pads.

Needing only a draw to achieve their tour objective, Michael Vaughan's side crept towards their position of strength in the morning session as Flintoff took an unusually long time to compile his first 30 runs, some 110 deliveries.

Importantly, however, the 27-year-old stood firm alongside Graham Thorpe as England's misfiring middle-order came good just when it was needed most.

It was Thorpe who dominated the stand before lunch, in fact, to pass 50 for only the second time in the series - from 157 deliveries.

He struck three off-side boundaries in the opening hour off Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini, who failed to create an opportunity.

South Africa captain Graeme Smith was forced to turn to spin in the search of a breakthrough, employing himself in tandem with left-armer Nicky Boje for an hour before the first interval.

The 50 partnership came up in one-and-a-half hours - of which Flintoff contributed only 14 - when Thorpe swept a fine four off Boje.

He proved easier to score off than off-spinner Smith as Flintoff hit boundaries in consecutive overs, a blow over mid-on followed by a powerful back-foot shot through extra cover.

Continued lack of success encouraged Smith to take the new ball immediately as it became available, and Ntini sent down a testing first over to Flintoff who survived a good lbw shout and dug out a yorker after driving through the off-side for four.

Even though Flintoff powered four of his initial 13 balls after lunch to the boundary to reach his half-century, it was comfortably his slowest 50 at this level.

But it instigated a calculated counter-attack as the two-an-over plod before lunch gave way to a scoring rate two-and-a-half times as fast.

A savage assault in one Ntini over, including a hooked six, reaped 13 runs in four balls and took England, who began the day on 114 for four, into credit without further loss.

Once ahead the tourists pushed on despite the double blow of losing Flintoff and Thorpe in consecutive overs; they had previously withstood South Africa's best attempts to prise them apart during more than three hours together.

Left-hander Thorpe - twice fortunate to survive lbw appeals from Smith's part-time off-spin - was yorked by the impressive Andre Nel, and Flintoff was then caught behind slashing at a widish delivery from Hall.

But Geraint Jones continued as Flintoff had finished as the home team's chances of levelling the series receded rapidly. Boje took the brunt of the aggression as wicketkeeper Jones twice lofted straight sixes and Ashley Giles slog-swept another maximum.

Jones brought up a scintillating half-century, from 52 balls, by hooking Nel for another six moments before he was lured into a drive which flew to slip to provide the former Northamptonshire bowler with a significant riposte.

Pounding in under bright sunshine - sharply-contrasting conditions to Sunday's electrical storms which restricted play to just 15 overs in the final two sessions - Nel single-handedly cleaned up the tail to restrict a lead which appeared to have greater potential to 112.

Giles was bowled around his legs, from around the wicket; Matthew Hoggard was well held low down at second slip by Jacques Kallis, and Nel completed Test-best figures of six for 81 - on his return to the side after injury - by having Stephen Harmison trapped lbw as England finally succumbed for 359