When Joe Root boldly sent the hosts in on a green-tinged pitch, the 21-year-old all-rounder was probably expecting to bear the lightest load in a five-strong seam attack. Instead he kept the tourists' heads above water with a career-best return of four for 57 on a trying day.
Quinton de Kock top-scored for the Proteas with 95 on a tricky surface and it is impossible to judge the first-innings score until England's batsmen have had their say.
Ben Stokes boosted England by declaring himself available in the morning, with his father Ged in a serious but stable condition in a Johannesburg hospital, but was unable to bowl a single ball and spent two extended periods off the field being treated for dehydration.
It was unclear whether he was suffering from the same sickness that has blighted the trip and ruled Ollie Pope, Chris Woakes and Jack Leach out of this match, but if he has been affected England could find themselves fighting with one hand behind their back for the remainder of the contest.
The life of an opening batsman can be a tormenting one, as Dean Elgar found out when he feathered James Anderson's gentle loosener to the wicketkeeper from the first ball of the match. If he felt deflated as he trudged from the field at least he was not alone in his despair. Around 6,500 miles away in Melbourne fellow opener Joe Burns had earlier bagged a golden duck of his own in Australia's Boxing Day Test against New Zealand.
Snapper takes a tumble
Play was delayed for a couple of minute after an unusual injury delay. Rather than a member of either team it was a local photographer in need of treatment after tripping over the boundary rope and hitting his head. England's players were quick to spot his predicament and summon medical assistance and the man was back at work before the lunch break.
Bumper crowd buys in to festive cheer
Fears over the long-term viability of Test cricket are real but it would be easy to persuade yourself otherwise by looking over the massed grass banks of SuperSport Park. Boosted by a hefty travelling contingent, Cricket South Africa's decision to keep the Christmas match in Centurion rather than returning to Durban was easily justified. A ground announcer declared himself surprised by the lack of volume from the Barmy Army but sales of beer and sunscreen surely made up for that.
By taking the field for his 150th cap James Anderson became the first specialist fast bowler to join an elite club that contains only eight other men and one other Englishman – Sir Alastair Cook. Anderson's first captain Nasser Hussain was on hand to make the presentation.
Day two of five, with South Africa pushing towards the 300 mark and England looking to wrap things up early.