Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - South Africa are several
essential steps closer to their first home series victory over Australia in the
post-apartheid era, fittingly after a day which saw tributes pour in to the
late Basil D’Oliveira, one of the country’s most iconic cricketing figures.
“Dolly”, who died in England aged 80 after
a brave, marathon battle with Parkinson’s disease, may have been exiled to and then
represented that country in 44 Tests, but he was a product of the Bo Kaap here
and shared a magical centre stage at Newlands with Graeme Pollock for the
opening of the 2003 World Cup on our soil – it was an occasion many would have
viewed as confirmation of a satisfying lid being placed on a divided past for
the game in South Africa.
And he would doubtless have approved richly
of the standout, undeniably “new South African” pair of Indian-descent Hashim
Amla and Afrikaner AB de Villiers navigating the Proteas out of some early second-innings
peril and nearer to at least not losing the Wanderers final Test and thus securing
With two full days to go and the Proteas
199 runs ahead with an assuring seven wickets in hand, a pendulum that has
swung wildly over the course of the two contests could yet retain its tendency
for unpredictability, of course.
But most critics would concur that Graeme
Smith’s team are significantly in the driving seat as things stand, with the
priceless, unbeaten fourth-wicket alliance of 139 in almost 42 overs of calm
authority at the crease between Amla and De Villiers giving South African
enthusiasts welcome heart on a sombre Saturday in certain respects.
As an overdue, healthy crowd of some
16 000 at the Bullring also took keenly to the pink theme of a cancer
awareness day, the South African dressing room would have been a more upbeat
place, probably, than the tired away-team one after early stumps once again as dark
Highveld clouds rumbled in.
The meteorological aspect is not
unimportant because the match, and by extension mini-series, is slowly
unravelling time-wise – and it is the Australians, 1-0 down, who quite
obviously need to secure as much further time as possible against lengthening
odds in their quest to level matters.
Michael Clarke and company will be looking
nervously, then, at some weather forecasts which suggest at least fitful rain
and mostly overcast skies over the ground on Sunday, and the greater prospect
of major downpours on day five.
The best they can do, against that
perturbing backdrop, is retain their cricket focus and hope they can
manufacture the kind of middle- and lower-order batting collapse both prior
innings in this Test have been characterised by.
It is getting close to that requirement for
them -- only teenage thunderbolt Pat Cummins looks as if he may be capable of
engineering the task to any great degree -- as the history of successful
fourth-knock chases at Wanderers suggests they may otherwise be seeking a
record total when they eventually bat again.
The very same Australia are the team who
boast the prior best winning feat at the venue, getting to 294 for eight to
beat the Proteas in early April 2006, completing a fine 3-0 sweep toward the
end of their golden era.
The only survivors from that triumphant XI
who should get another stab at a fairly similar requirement will be the
seriously out-of-touch Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey, who got 89 on that
occasion as a makeshift opener because Justin Langer was injured.
South Africa, meanwhile, will bank on Amla,
who is closing in typically methodically on a 14th Test century and
second really important second-dig one of the series, and De Villiers only
continuing to push the Aussies toward the brink of series surrender.
They will know that there have been enough
crazy fluctuations in this enthralling early-summer combat for nobody to
confidently yet stake their house on either side prevailing in this fixture.
Both men brought a healthy dose of overdue,
genuine Test-culture sanity back to batting proceedings at the Wanderers,
looking more and more adhesive as day three wore on and choosing their scoring
opportunities mostly very well.
The pitch is showing only rare hints –
albeit strongly evident ones, when they do come – of influential break-up, so
the remainder of the Proteas’ order must do everything they can to cash in
before Australia are re-inserted.
Various factors, though, are conspiring to
make the “equaliser” look less and less likely for the Baggy Greens.
Oops, having said that, maybe all South
African supporters had better touch wood ...