MANCHESTER - An absorbing day of Test-match cut and thrust finished with honours more or less even but with South Africa over-flowing with belief, thanks to a searing yorker from the final ball of Kagiso Rabada 's day that burst through the defences of England 's top-scorer and most potent threat, Ben Stokes. His stumps were splayed to bring to an end a 65-run stand for the sixth wicket with Jonny Bairstow and bring to the crease the nightwatchman, Toby Roland-Jones, who loitered at the non-striker's end without facing a delivery as England closed on 260 for 6.

Each of England 's top six made starts, including the captain Joe Root, who went past 5000 runs in the course of his 52 - an innings which also equalled John Edrich's England record of ten consecutive matches with at least a half-century. But, as a testing morning session under slate-grey skies gave way to perfect sun-kissed batting conditions in the afternoon, England 's recent propensity to squander solid positions with reckless intent threatened once again to destabilise their series prospects.

It had been a testing decision for Root to bat first after winning the toss. After several days of the most stereotypically grim Mancunian weather imaginable, the suspicion lingered that the surface, though ostensibly dry, could hardly have avoided absorbing a considerable amount of moisture in its preparation. And sure enough, England found the going tough from the outset, even in the absence of the one South Africa bowler most likely to have thrived in the seam-and-swing conditions.

After battling through illness in the third Test at The Oval, Vernon Philander succumbed to a back spasm on the eve of the match, as did another valued member of their fast-bowling stocks, Chris Morris - whose pace and aggression had been instrumental in their second-Test fightback at Trent Bridge last month.

However, Morne Morkel and Rabada set South Africa's example with the new ball, hammering out an edge-threatening line and length to England 's brace of left-handed openers, before Duanne Olivier provided pace, enthusiasm and the odd unplayable delivery in a lively return to the ranks. The undersung hero, however, was the left-arm spinner, Keshav Maharaj, who churned out 29 overs from the Brian Statham End to allow his quicker counterparts to stay fresh and threatening in rotation from the newly anointed James Anderson End.

Keaton Jennings, whose 48 in the second innings at The Oval had been a streaky but valuable reminder of his battling qualities, once again failed to dispel the gathering doubts about his Test aptitude with a battling but unfulfilled innings of 17 from 37 balls. He could, and perhaps should, have been dismissed by his fourth ball of the match, a lollipopping inside-edge onto the pad flap that Rabada couldn't gather in his followthrough but that short leg would have swallowed, but was instead lured forward by a sharp lifter outside off by Olivier, for Quinton de Kock to take the catch that ended an opening stand of 35.

Alastair Cook, true to his phlegmatic approach, was tested time and again in the channel outside off, particularly by the superb and largely luckless Morkel, but managed, through a combination of skill, luck and judgment, to guide England to a digestible lunch at 67 for 1. His most productive scoring area, unusually for the first morning of a Test match, was straight down the ground, where he twice placed fractionally overpitched deliveries from Morkel and Olivier with dead-eyed timing.

Cook did have one moment of discomfort against the sharp pace of Rabada , who hurried him on the pull as he combated a round-the-wicket bouncer, and gloved a top-edge over the keeper's head for four. But it was the spin of Maharaj that made the next big breakthrough, half an hour after the resumption. Warming to a spell that would span the entire session, his relentless accuracy on and around the blockhole, allied to a hint of spin and natural variation, lured Cook into the indiscretion that the seamers had been unable to tempt.

Harnessing the breeze across the ground, Maharaj drifted the ball past an urgent drive for de Kock to gather a thin edge behind the stumps. Cook was gone for 46 from 103 balls, an innings that almost precisely represented both his career average (46.18) and strike rate (46.77). Distinctly average by his standards, therefore, but a cut above what most other players would have produced in such conditions.

As if to prove the point, four overs ticked by without addition to the score before Tom Westley too was extracted - his 29 echoing his 25 in his debut innings at The Oval last week, in that it had showcased a Test-worthy technique and temperament, but had been cut short before it had fully formed. This time the executioner was Rabada , and in dramatic style. Cranking himself up to full pace and ferocity, he burst a lifting delivery off the edge and into the outstretched right mitt of de Kock.

A brilliant dismissal though it was, de Kock had arguably made up in athleticism and hang-time what he had lacked in his initial footwork, as he dived fully to his right to gather the flying edge. It was a suspicion that would be reinforced in jaw-dropping style three overs after tea, when he failed to react as Morne Morkel found Root's edge with a lifter that couldn't have passed his motionless gloves by more than a foot.

De Kock's crestfallen expression brought to mind that of Mark Boucher after dropping Nasser Hussain at Trent Bridge in 1998. And, as Root ground through to his fifty from 91 balls, South Africa might have feared it would be equally ruinous to their series prospects. And yet, on 52, and with a lazy afternoon of accumulation yawning in front of him, he galloped down the pitch to Olivier and fell lbw to a one-day waft through midwicket.

By that stage, Malan had been and gone, having played his part in a fourth-wicket stand of 52 with Root, before succumbing to another moment of impetuosity with four minutes of the afternoon session remaining. He might have departed first ball, as he whooshed into a nervy and hard-handed drive to an exocet from Rabada outside off. But, having steadied his nerves and remembered his arena, he was suckered by a change of angle from Morkel, who had switched his line to the left-hander from round the wicket to over.

Suddenly balls that had been bearing into Malan's body were being dangled across his bows, and it was too much of a temptation for a man whose first international innings had been 78 from 44 balls. Du Plessis took the chance in his breadbasket, and Malan stalked from the field, swishing his bat in annoyance.

The evening session, therefore, was reserved for England 's middle-order pairing of Stokes and Bairstow - the most prolific partnership of the Trevor Bayliss era, and architects of that 399-run stand in Cape Town 18 months ago. This was a performance far removed from that batsman's benefit game, however, and both men were obliged to ride their luck despite occasionally breezy moments of accumulation.

Bairstow, on 4, was given not out, out and not out again by a combination of Kumar Dharmasena and the TV umpire, Joel Wilson, after an inside-edge off Maharaj was adjudged to have fallen millimetres short of Dean Elgar at slip. And Stokes, his face reddening in keeping with his mood as he gritted his teeth in the day's closing overs, exacerbated Morkel's lack of luck by edging his fifth delivery with the second new ball clean through the unposted third slip. Undeterred, he punched Rabada down the ground to bring up his fifty from 89 balls, to allow England to reclaim the upper hand.

But, with stumps approaching, Rabada cranked up his aggro in one last-ditch bid for a breakthrough. Stokes picked off two boundaries in a high-octane finale, including a rushed pull that flew through at a catchable height through fine leg. But he had no answer to the yorker, and South Africa reached the close with their ambitions still very much intact.

 Scoreboard

ENGLAND 1ST INNINGS:
A Cook c de Kock b Maharaj 46
K Jennings c de Kock b Olivier 17
T Westley c de Kock b Rabada 29
J Root lbw b Olivier 52
D Malan c du Plessis b Morkel 18
B Stokes b Rabada 58
J Bairstow not out 33
T Roland-Jones not out 0
EXTRAS: (b5, lb1, nb1) 7
TOTAL: (6 wkts, 90 overs) 260
FOW: 1-35, 2-92, 3-92, 4-144, 5-187, 6-252
BOWLING: Morkel 19-4-58-1; Rabada 18-5-52-2; Olivier 19-3-72-2; Maharaj 29-9-54-1; De Bruyn 5-0-18-0 (1nb)
SOUTH AFRICA: Dean Elgar, Heino Kuhn, Hashim Amla, Quinton de Kock (wkt), Faf du Plessis (capt), Temba Bavuma, Theunis de Bruyn, Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada , Morne Morkel, Duanne Olivier
TOSS: England
UMPIRES: Aleem Dar (PAK), Kumar Dharmasena (SRI)
TV UMPIRE: Joel Wilson (WIS)
MATCH REFEREE: Ranjan Madugalle (SRI)