Testing pitch makes this harder than Perth - Harris
Ten weeks after South Africa rewrote the rules on gettable targets, the memory of the WACA Test is still hanging over both teams with a day to play in Johannesburg. The situation is eerily familiar, if slightly more in Australia's favour. South Africa need another 276 runs with eight wickets in hand; at stumps on day four in Perth they required 187 with seven wickets remaining.
At the WACA, they made the second-highest chase in Test history by reaching 414; here they will need to create a new record after Australia set them 454 to win. But such have been the battles between these two teams over the past three months that it is impossible to write South Africa off, especially with Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis well set and the Perth heroes AB de Villiers and JP Duminy to come.
South Africa's openers Graeme Smith and Neil McKenzie gave their side the perfect start by reaching 76 without loss and Australia's inability to extract much swing from the new ball was a key factor. But Paul Harris, the South Africa spinner, said their task on this occasion was more difficult than in Perth because of the tough conditions.
"There's quite a bit more in this wicket than there was in Perth," Harris said. "I think the second new ball [available in 25 overs] will probably end up being key. If we can get to that second new ball without any damage then I think we've got a good chance. We have to play really well, history is against us. But if there's a group of guys that can do that then this one's proved that they are the ones to do it."
Australia were hoping to set a marginally higher target but their plans were scuppered by an incredible opening session in which they lost eight wickets. Their coach Tim Nielsen said he was in no doubt which side was in the stronger position after four days.
"They need everything to go their way, I still feel," Nielsen said. "We didn't want to bat last on this wicket and I think it will still be a little bit up and down tomorrow. I'll say it till I go to the grave, if we've got 430 in the fourth innings of every Test match, I'll take it every day of the week."
That Australia have found themselves in such a strong position with one of their least-experienced sides in recent memory is an impressive achievement. Although the young attack of Mitchell Johnson, Ben Hilfenhaus, Peter Siddle and Andrew McDonald battled to make major inroads in the second innings, Nielsen said the team had stood up superbly over the first four days.
"If we do win this game, the mental state of this young side will be over the top, it will be amazing," he said. "We're not even thinking about losing. We'll think about that when the time comes. I can't see anything but us winning this game. I'm really excited about the fact a young team has gotten themselves into a position to win a Test match on day five.
"I thought the decision to bat on the first morning was a courageous decision. The wicket looked a little underdone and the weather was against us. For us to fight out 460-odd with Marcus North, on his debut, getting a hundred, was a fantastic effort. And then a young bowling attack did a great job in the first innings. We've seen a little bit of inconsistency today but if we can get back to playing good strong cricket, we're right in the driving seat. I'm really proud of the kids."
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo