Yet again, Steyn may hold key
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer
Cape Town - South Africa’s champion fast bowler Dale Steyn was unusually more beneficial to his country with willow than whistling leather on day four of the decisive second Test against Australia at the Wanderers on Sunday.
Scorecard after Day 4
Video Highlights: Day 4
Whether or not he returns to customary, exemplary ball-in-hand standards on Monday could be the factor that tilts the scales in determining if the Proteas win or - disappointingly - only share another major home series.
The one thing you can normally bank on with the Phalaborwa Express is that if he goes just a wee bit flat at his primary trade in a day’s play or session or two, he does tend to bounce back in some earnest.
I would not bet against it happening once more on the last day of what has truly been a ding-dong and absorbing mini-series.
The game is on a knife edge, with South Africa arguably still a whisker ahead for “favourite” tag, although Aussie resilience - primarily thanks to the highly competent third-wicket stand of 122 between old master Ricky Ponting and relative rookie Usman Khawaja - in a difficult chase has been praiseworthy thus far.
Certainly at 19 for two the Baggy Greens were looking ... well, saggy.
But now it is “game on” after the bulky, healing stand as they try to winkle out a further 168 runs to level the series with seven wickets in hand.
From their point of view, the seasoned middle-order trio of unbeaten Ponting, captain Michael Clarke and Mike Hussey will almost certainly be vital figures in their quest.
History counts quite heavily against them, even if history is also there to be challenged and defied - no winning fourth innings has ever gone over the 300 mark at the Bullring, and only once in all fourth-knock circumstances has that figure been eclipsed, when Mike Atherton and Jack Russell famously stone-walled for an eternity for a draw by England in 1995/96.
On a tense but always engrossing Sunday, Steyn’s continued improvement as a tail-end batting factor was of greater influence to the home cause than when he later bowled (10 wicketless overs for concession of 44 runs).
Rapidly developing a tidy little knack of being particularly bothersome at the crease to Australia, Steyn took guard with South Africa leading by a mildly precarious 236 and badly in need of a further swelling to their second-innings total even as teenager Pat Cummins tore spiritedly into them and effectively told the world he’d arrived as a genuine pace factor at the highest level.
Aided in no small measure by Vernon Philander’s obduracy at the other end, Steyn’s 41 off 64 balls from the No 9 spot was precisely what the South African “doctor” ordered.
First suitably watchful, willing to absorb a bruise and straight-batted, he then resorted to long-handle tactics with some effect, although I have always harboured a quaint little theory that fast bowlers who have just boosted their egos with the bat then struggle initially when they quickly switch once more to the duty they are supposedly better at.
Steyn will have had a chance to take a deep breath and regroup mentally overnight.
He has not bowled badly in the Aussie chase, but can also offer greater gusto and penetration ... and I suspect will.
He still has the incentive, not an inconsiderable one, of grabbing two further scalps in the match - he got four in the first innings - to equal Dennis Lillee’s feat of being quickest bowler to 250 wickets in Tests, in terms of number of matches played (48).
For the record, I firmly back Steyn to reach his personal, feather-in-cap landmark, and also fancy it to assist in getting the Proteas over the line for a 2-0 outcome, even if the latter suggestion is made with rather less bullishness ...
*Follow Sport24 chief writer Rob Houwing on Twitter: @RobHouwing