Australia v South Africa, 3rd Test, Sydney January 1, 2006

South Africa's bounce-back ability put to test

Graeme Smith knows that South Africa can ill afford a butter-fingered response to chances © AFP

Even before Australia's lengthy howzats in the second innings at the MCG this series had been the most appealing at home for years. Groomed on dominating visiting outfits, Ricky Ponting's team had to wait eight days over two Tests before wrestling control from a willing, competitive, but inexperienced South Africa, who start Monday's third and final match needing a win to equal their best result in the country.

The cricket has been absorbing and when combined with the side issues of over-appealing, race issues and the war of words it has led to a simmering December, which ended with a 42C day as the teams flew on Saturday from Melbourne to Sydney. The SCG is the site of South Africa's most famous victory in Australia, a five-run thriller in 1993-94, and they need another never-say-die performance to recover from the 1-0 deficit.

Graeme Smith will have to do it without Makhaya Ntini, the strike bowler who has returned home with a knee injury. Andre Nel will assume the attack-leading responsibilities - his main pace support will come from Shaun Pollock and Jacques Kallis - and he has talked tough during the first two Tests, turned the apparent hatred from Australian crowds into a spur and created many problems for his opponents. Unfortunately for South Africa their fielders have let them down with poor catching; Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey were both dropped before reaching 30 in the first innings at Melbourne and went on to score crucial centuries.

Mickey Arthur, the coach, has worked his players hard at training on this tour and is worried he might have pushed them too much. Smith said the team had absorbed the pressure well, but wondered how the situation would have been different if the extra chances had been held.

"It's almost like quicksand, the harder you work the further you slip," he said. "It's just about relaxing and letting natural ability take over. We've let ourselves down and we know that." South Africa will undergo some reshuffling to cater for Ntini's absence and may play the offspinner Johan Botha - either in tandem with Nicky Boje or instead of him - if the pitch looks like a big-turner.

Will Michael Hussey's golden run continue? © AFP

Only something extreme would push Australia to interrupt the Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill partnership as they attempt to win the series before the return leg in South Africa in March. MacGill calls the SCG his "house" and in seven Tests there has taken 49 wickets at 23.71, including five five-wicket hauls.

Australia's only change will be Justin Langer returning for Phil Jaques after he recovered from a hamstring strain suffered in the first Test at Perth. Langer has experienced a disrupted season, but there is no doubt over his position when fit and as a veteran of the side he will be an important figure in making sure they take advantage of the strong position.

Both teams believe they can win and their attitudes set up a thrilling end to an already brilliant series. "We go to Sydney a stronger outfit," Arthur said. "Our bounce-back ability is brilliant."

Australia (probable) 1 Matthew Hayden, 2 Justin Langer, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Brad Hodge, 5 Michael Hussey, 6 Andrew Symonds, 7 Adam Gilchrist (wk), 8 Shane Warne, 9 Brett Lee, 10 Stuart MacGill, 11 Glenn McGrath.

South Africa (probable) 1 Graeme Smith (capt), 2 AB de Villiers, 3 Herschelle Gibbs, 4 Jaques Kallis, 5 Ashwell Prince, 6 Jacques Rudolph, 7 Mark Boucher, 8 Shaun Pollock, 9 Johan Botha, 10 Nicky Boje, 11 Andre Nel.

Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo