Andrew Strauss almost single-handedly wiped out the damage inflicted by South Africa's last-wicket stand as England reached tea 59 without loss in reply to 343 at Kingsmead.
Dale Steyn dominated a partnership of 58 with Makhaya Ntini to push the balance of the second Test in the hosts' favour on the second afternoon in Durban.
But Strauss raised the stakes again with an unbeaten 50 at better than a run-a-ball, dispatching eight fours - including three in one Ntini over - in less than an hour's batting alongside near silent partner Alastair Cook.
South Africa had earlier seemed destined to fall short of 300, but Steyn had other ideas, taking a particular liking to Graeme Swann (four for 110).
Play got under way half-an-hour earlier than previously scheduled - to make up for time lost to bad weather on Saturday - with the floodlights in action under heavy cloud cover which persisted throughout.
Overnight pair Mark Boucher and AB de Villiers took advantage of a pitch which provided little for the old ball, in a stand of 63.
There was a series of half-chances for England, but nothing clear-cut and deserving of significant self-reproach. Perhaps the most telling was when De Villiers pushed a single off Swann on 18, just past short-leg Cook on the full.
England finally registered their first decision review system success of the series, however, when Swann broke the sixth-wicket stand with a delivery which turned enough into Boucher to beat the bat and hit pad.
Umpire Amiesh Saheba had to overturn his original not-out decision, after plenty of initial deliberation from England over whether to review and then from the third official too.
The cost to the flow of the game was around two-and-a-half minutes, but England certainly were not complaining.