Hughes and Ponting punish South Africa
Phillip Hughes has positioned Australia for victory and himself for celebrity. Just 11 days removed from posting a fourth-ball duck in his maiden Test innings, Hughes broke George Headley's 79-year-old record to become the youngest batsman in history to score centuries in each innings of a Test. His unbeaten 136 in the second innings at Kingsmead led Australia to 292 for 3 at stumps, and an impregnable lead of 506.
Fittingly, Hughes raised his second century in three days with an upper-cut boundary off the bowling of Morne Morkel. It was that stroke that brought about his early demise at the Wanderers last week, and prompted the likes of AB de Villiers and Mickey Arthur to publicly declare it a weakness in his armoury. Undeterred by the criticism, Hughes has continued to play the cut shot with frequency and potency. He has now scored 326 runs for the series - 128 clear of the second-placed Ricky Ponting - at the astonishing average of 108.66, and shows no sign of easing the pace.
The South Africans have thrown everything at Hughes - bouncers, yorkers, abuse - but to no avail. At 20 years and 98 days, and in only his second full season of first class cricket, Hughes has displayed a temperament and poise far beyond his age and experience, and provided Australia with the top-order spark that eluded Matthew Hayden in his twilight series.
Hughes' offside technique might not be to everyone's taste - particularly his penchant for backing away to short-pitched bowling - but it has yet to be proven flawed at the junior, first-class or international level. Eighty of his 136 runs in the second innings were scored between first slip and extra cover, and South Africa's stand-in captain, Mark Boucher, appeared powerless to stem the flow.
It was said prior to this series that Ponting was presiding over a crumbling empire, but his band of willing reinforcements are ensuring the walls of Rome are holding fast. The captain, himself, went far to ensuring a series-clinching Australian victory with an imperious innings of 81 and together with Hughes added 164 runs for the second wicket. The once marauding South Africans were in full retreat.
As in their golden age, the Australians were merciless in their pursuit of an ailing opponent. Hughes and Ponting propelled the Australian second innings at a spirited pace throughout the middle session, and experienced few problems in negating a surface that, just a day prior, had completely confounded the host team.
Hughes revealed Australia's ruthless intent in the over after lunch. The left-hander blasted a pair of boundaries that took him past 50 for the third time in as many innings, and Ponting promptly followed with a near-even time half-century. Soon after, Ponting moved past Steve Waugh to claim fourth place on the Test run-scorers' list with a pull stroke that, for well over a decade, has been his signature stroke. Frenetic and poetic.
The only blemish on an otherwise dominant day for Australia were the losses of Simon Katich, Ponting and Michael Hussey, but it mattered little. With a comprehensive win in Johannesburg and a 500-plus lead after three days in Durban, Australia have effectively discounted South Africa as an immediate threat to their Test crown.
Australia's batting fortunes contrasted sharply with those of the South Africans. The hosts began the day hopeful of adding the 14 runs required to pass the follow-on target, after JP Duminy (73) and Steyn survived the closing stages of what, for the South Africans, was a cataclysmic day two.
But they would add no further runs to their overnight total of 138, with Steyn and Makhaya Ntini falling in consecutive balls to Siddle, who will commence the second innings on a hat-trick. Ponting, as has become custom, opted against enforcing the follow-on to allow his bowlers some respite and his batsmen the opportunity to compound their opponents' misery. Judging by the South Africans' body language at stumps, Ponting has at least proven successful in the latter regard.
Seldom has a modern South African batting card read so poorly. In all, nine batsmen were dismissed for single figures - combining for 20 runs in total - and three failed to trouble the scorers at all. Extras (23) were second only to Duminy in terms of runs contributed to the team cause, while Steyn was the third highest-scorer among the batsmen with eight.
The last time the South Africans posted a total this modest, Arthur accused the Kanpur curator of "hijacking" his team's bid to win the 2008 series against India. And not since January, 2007 - when a rampant Shoaib Akhtar flexed his considerable muscles in Port Elizabeth - has a South African side combined for such a low innings score at home.
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo