England 205 and 1 for 0 need another 473 runs to beat South Africa 335 and 343 for 9 dec (Amla 87, Elgar 80, du Plessis 63, Moeen 4-78)
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details
South Africa squeezed the pulp from England's attack in the second Investec Test with a resolution that has not only set them up for victory at Trent Bridge, so levelling the series at 1-1, but potentially left a few psychological marks for the matches ahead at The Oval and Old Trafford.
England's openers clung on for four overs at the end of an exhausting third day - and even that required Alastair Cook's successful review, first ball, to overturn an lbw decision for Morne Morkel, as well as much desperate defending besides.
But that was about England's only consolation as they contemplated a target of 474, assembled with utmost seriousness by a South African side determined to give no quarter. No side has made that many at Trent Bridge in the fourth innings, whatever the result, and the weather is set fair.
There was much for South Africa to like as they looked on from Trent Bridge's characterful old dressing-room balcony. England's spinners, lightly used in the first half of the day, found increasing turn in the final session, and there was both steep and low bounce for the second new ball.
Only in the hour before the declaration did South Africa bat in uninhibited fashion, adding 68 in 14 overs as their lead passed West Indies' 418 for 7, the highest successful chase in Test history in St John's 14 years ago, and 440, the highest fourth-innings in a Test in England, amassed by New Zealand in 1973 in the pluckiest of defeats.
The mood of the day, though, centred upon Hashim Amla, who was so relaxed in making 80 from 180 balls, he might have been a prized professor at a school of meditation. Not that he did much to de-stress the England attack as South Africa's lead slowly advanced. His passivity told not of negativity but of an inner certainty that a South African win would ultimately unfold before him.
Amla's demise was somewhat unexpected. Joe Root had been markedly reluctant to bowl his spinners, especially Liam Dawson, who had been despatched with ease by Amla in two overs before lunch. But with the seamers needing time to graze before the second new ball, Dawson had to return and he had Amla lbw advancing well down the pitch in a bid to hit him down the ground.
Umpire Paul Rieffel had no option but to turn down the appeal, just as it was no surprise to find upon England's review that ball-tracking technology suggested the ball would hit middle, halfway up. Dawson deserved it, if only for the precision of his review signal to his captain - the 'T' signal perfectly formed - which was either symptomatic of a Test cricket newbie eager to do things right or merely a young man of fastidious nature.
As England took the field at the start of play, the Getty photographer Gareth Copley captured Stuart Broad staring at the Trent Bridge honours board, as if to build himself up for a supreme fightback, South Africa's lead at start of play already being 205.
It was not to be. Neither Broad not James Anderson found the life unearthed by South Africa's new-ball pair on the previous day. Ben Stokes summoned his best, most aggressive form of the summer, but he had a hint of a limp by the end. Mark Wood, the weakest of the quartet, has yet to find the 90mph threat that England crave and his place must be in jeopardy.
While England attempted to rectify their shortcomings of the first two days, criticism was easy to find. Graeme Smith, a former South African captain and a batsman who knew something about crease occupation, termed England's first innings "glory cricket". Geoffrey Boycott, another adhesive opening batsman of repute, was in the mood to collar anybody in his range to lecture them about defensive batsmanship.
It felt a bit misleading. England had hared along at four an over as they conceded a first-innings lead of 130, but none of their top-six batsmen, with the possible exception of Root, had been dismissed because of attacking intent. Whether they had been dismissed because of a lack of defensive excellence was an altogether different matter.
Whatever the assessment, England were up against it. They needed wickets, and quickly, but they had to make do with Elgar, prised out for 80 with lunch 20 minutes away, along with Quinton de Kock, whose danger was defused an over later with only a single to his name. Elgar's stand of 135 in 36 overs with Amla (it felt slower) set the tone.
Amla drained England by sitting in and waiting, taking boundaries from only the loosest deliveries; it was hard to remember a play-and-miss. Elgar ground forward with occasional watchful off-side drives and deflections to third man, some of them secure, some of them not. Suitably, he raised his fifty by thick-edging Anderson low through third slip. His technique was occasionally flawed, but his concentration was impeccable.
England had fleeting chances to remove both of them in the opening forays. Criticised for their wanton waste of reviews, this time England missed one. When Broad flicked Amla's outside edge, on 25, the only half-appeal came from Alastair Cook at first slip. Even Broad looked confused as to whether he should appeal, which does not often happen. TV replays showed the slightest contact.
Elgar's escape, on 55, came in the shape of a fantastic leaping effort at gully by Anderson, who got a hand on the ball as it flashed by on his left-hand side. Hardly a chance, but frustration nonetheless.
The appearance of spin sparked Amla into life. He took 14 off Dawson's second over, capped by an effortless straight six to raise his fifty: 38 scored all morning and half of them in two Dawson overs. Not the best time for Dawson to strike up a casual conversation with an England seamer. By tea, Amla's wicket in the book, he had the right to a sentence or two.
Statistics insist that Elgar is much more vulnerable to right-arm quicks coming around the wicket - strikingly so, with an average of 27 compared to 70-plus, and Broad in particular was eager to take advantage.
But Elgar had 80 by the time Stokes added another around-the-wicket dismissal to the records. It was a good aggressive bouncer, uncomfortably spooned aside in front of his face and easily caught by Anderson at square leg. De Kock edged Anderson to Bairstow in the next over.
By the time England took four wickets in the final session, they were but drops in an ocean of pessimism. Temba Bavuma, in other circumstances, might have been ticked off for getting out two deliveries before the second new ball - lofting Moeen to wide mid-off, there were good catches in the deep by Gary Ballance and Broad, and there was a painful blow on the wrist for Bairstow, fielding a ball from Stokes that scudded awkwardly in front of him, that might yet cause England some concern.