Cape Town – Shane Warne put it succinctly, as the leg-spinning legend often enough does.
“South Africa have had two big chances to really put the foot on the throat, but not (taken them),” he said in SuperSport’s post-play analysis after day two of the third Test against Australia at Newlands.
Old adversary as Proteas captain but now colleague in the commentary box, Graeme Smith, pursued a virtually identical theme: “South Africa had two opportunities to command the game … and let both slip.”
They were referring, of course, to the home nation’s marvellous positions early in the final sessions of both Thursday and Friday, before crucial Aussie second-wind initiatives stabilised the tourists’ own plans in the enduringly ding-dong, engrossing series.
On day one, the Proteas were rattling along at 220 for two before Pat Cummins led a concerted fightback in the lengthening shadows; the batting side were eventually dismissed for 311 from that once-idyllic platform.
But the last hour on Friday also saw the visitors dig themselves spiritedly out of a fairly pronounced hole, some lusty hitting by off-spinner Nathan Lyon (career-best 47 off 38 balls) turning their 175 for eight into a significantly more palatable 245 for nine for them by early stumps due to bad light.
Yes, they were galling developments for South African enthusiasts, who for much of the last year – and more? -- have seen the Proteas routinely mix the sublime with the sloppy in Test cricket, explaining their erratic sequence of series result.
Nevertheless “Biff” Smith, whether Australians wished to brand him a tad parochial or not, put a pretty fair perspective on things, as stumps were drawn with the Proteas 66 runs to the good on the first innings and with one remaining first-knock wicket to snap up on Saturday.
“(The Proteas) can still feel happy with their work today. They remain in a solid position … have got a bit of leeway.”
He may well be right.
Bearing in mind the hazard of having to bat last on a pitch that should go increasingly up-and-down and abrasive, Australia ideally should be seeking a lead of around 40 or more on the first dig – rather than a deficit that may well end up being in the region of 60 or thereabouts.
So in some senses, those inevitably cursing the Proteas losing a bit of composure in the field late on Friday might instead want to consider cutting Faf du Plessis’s troops some slack: they could be said to be “a century” in front of this game, roughly as things stand.
Almost undoubtedly, theirs are the shoes still better to be in, even if the Newlands pitch can be a quirky old devil and this contest will still produce some delicious twists and turns, you can almost be sure.
So there was no special reason for the SA dressing room to be too downbeat on themselves after the second day’s play, especially as there was the far from un-joyous matter of celebrating popular Morne Morkel’s ascension to the 300-wicket mark in probably his second-last Test match.
Assuming that they do command a first innings lead of around 60, statistics at the ground suggest that a resolute enough third knock in this contest by them – perhaps somewhere in the region of 220-240 or northward? – would put them in a prime position to press for a win and 2-1 series lead with just the Wanderers to play.
Only once has a target of above 300 been successfully hunted down before in the fourth innings at the venue, when Steve Waugh’s Aussies of 2001/02, needing 331 to secure the three-match series in the second Test, got to 334 for six (Ricky Ponting 100 not out, Matthew Hayden 96).
You drop almost 100 runs for the next successful chase-down.
So even as the Proteas unavoidably rue a dose of “what might have been”, there is a bigger picture out there, just waiting to be sold to the most appropriate bidder.
The best stash of dosh is still in the home pocket.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing