Entertainment guaranteed with Test mace on the line
First it was 2-1 to South Africa. Then it was 2-1 to Australia. Next it was 1-1 in a pitifully short series last November. The battles between Graeme Smith's men and Australia over the past four years can be bracketed together, such has been the shared narrative running through the contests, and the two teams will walk out on to the Gabba on Friday locked together at 4-4. There has not been a draw or a dull match among them. Now it's time for the decider. A grand final spread over four weeks and three cities.
Of course, it is not strictly correct to call this the tiebreaker, for they meet again in South Africa in 2014. But by then the teams from those 2008-09 encounters could be those of a bygone era. Should Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey retire after next year's back-to-back Ashes - if they make it that far - Michael Clarke and Peter Siddle may be Australia's only remnants of that first 2008 series. South Africa have also lost a few veterans and by 2014 may have said goodbye to Jacques Kallis, although he appears so indestructible that he might still be around when Pat Cummins retires.
Victory by any margin in this series for either team will give them a lead in their head-to-head, as well as the ICC's Test championship mace - the latter perhaps only briefly though, as England's results in India could shuffle the table again. The fact that the No. 1 ranking is up for grabs, as it was when Australia under Ricky Ponting toured South Africa in early 2009, is an indication of how little separates these teams. This time it's Smith's side that holds top spot, but given the troughs Australia have been through over the past four years it's difficult not to think South Africa should be further in front.
Have they made the most of this period of South African strength, an era in which Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and lately Vernon Philander have clinically dissected batting line-ups all over the globe? Do they have the killer instinct required to stay on top, and to increase the gap between themselves and the rest of the world? It is notable that over the past four years, South Africa have won less than half the Test matches they have played; Australia have won more than half of theirs, despite two Ashes debacles.
But enough numbers. To reduce these contests to a set of statistics is like describing the Mona Lisa as oil on poplar, 77cm x 53cm. Over the past four years, the meetings between Australia and South Africa have been as remarkable as modern Test cricket gets. They have been eagerly anticipated by fans from all over the cricket-playing world. If every Test match was as gripping as the eight put on by these two sides, day-night cricket wouldn't be necessary because fans would skip work to watch it.
Think of Mitchell Johnson breaking Graeme Smith's hand in Sydney, and the spine-tingling sight of Smith walking down the SCG race late on the final afternoon, barely able to hold the bat but determined to give his team every chance of salvaging a draw. Think of Johnson's blood-on-the-pitch spell in Durban, where his bouncer struck Kallis under the grille, leaving his chin wounded and forcing him to retire hurt. Remember the twin tons Phillip Hughes scored in that match, his second Test.
Think of South Africa's near world-record chase of 414 at the WACA, when the debutant JP Duminy showed poise beyond his years to score an unbeaten half-century, and the 166 he scored the following week in Melbourne, where he and Steyn humiliated Australia's bowlers with a four-hour tail-end partnership. Think of Marcus North's debut hundred and Johnson hitting catches into the crowd as Australia won with three debutants at the Wanderers. Think of poor Bryce McGain, Australia's 37-year-old rookie, being belted out of Test cricket in Cape Town, where Johnson's thrashed 123 in a losing cause.
And, of course, remember the day at the same venue last year when Australia were 21 for 9. Yes, 21 for 9. They scrambled to 47. On a day of carnage, parts of all four innings took place, only the third time it had happened in all of Test history. And on either side of the massacre, the greatest innings Michael Clarke has ever played, and a pair of match-winning hundreds from Smith and Hashim Amla. And finally, think of Pat Cummins, 18 years old and barely out of school, resurrecting Australia's hopes with a match-winning display full of youthful joie de vivre at the Wanderers a week later.
There is no reason to expect any less of this series. It is a battle between the world's best pace attack and a bowling group with a bright future ahead of them. In the role of Cummins this year is the 22-year-old James Pattinson, whose swagger and skill make him irresistible to watch. Pattinson bowls with the speed and the outswing of Steyn. He doesn't yet have the same consistency, but he is unquestionably the man to watch in Australia's attack.
The pace-friendly pitches at the Gabba and the WACA should help make this another series to remember. How will Amla handle the Australian conditions? Will David Warner's bite match his bark? Will AB de Villiers be a shadow of the batsman he once was, now that the wicketkeeping duties are on his mind as well? Will Ponting be able to reproduce the form he showed last year against a blunt Indian attack?
Does Mickey Arthur hold the inside knowledge that will end South Africa's outstanding record away from home? And if South Africa win the first Test, can they go in for the kill?
We're about to find out. Enough talk. Let the grand final begin.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here