South Africa v Australia, 1st Test, Cape Town, 2nd day November 10, 2011

South Africa confident after stirring fightback

The contest at Newlands has swung from tense to one-sided to competitive, and now stands on the cusp of an epic finish

It is not turning into the five-day thriller that these teams are capable of but the first Test between South Africa and Australia is still poised for a close finish. With the two middle innings of the contest playing out in bizarre fashion and their combined totals amounting to less than Michael Clarke's score in one innings, the contest has swung from tense to one-sided to competitive, and now stands on the cusp of an epic finish.

"We have to work our backsides off tomorrow," Michael Clarke, Australia captain said at the end of the second day. "In my mind, if we can bowl well tomorrow morning we have enough runs on the board to win this Test match but I don't hide away from the fact that, that batting performance was not good enough."

Jacques Rudolph, South Africa's comeback kid, had an equal response. "Graeme [Smith] made the point clear to us that we have to come here tomorrow with very good attitudes," he said. "We want to try and put on a good performance. We've chased targets very well against Australia recently."

With 155 runs needed and nine wickets in hand, South Africa appear the favourites, but in a match that has produced batting displays of the standard of a primary school competition, anything is possible. After a decent first innings of 284 from Australia, the next two efforts suggested that the Newlands pitch had turned into a snake-pit, a minefield, or worse. In reality, all that happened was that it had quickened up, according to Rudolph.

South Africa were undone by wicket-to-wicket, length bowling, while Australia succumbed to swing and seam, leaving the cricketing world wondering if the ICC will slap Cape Town's jewel of a stadium with a warning, if not a ban. Clarke quickly absolved the surface of any blame and said the weather had had more of an impact than his team bargained for.

With clouds covering the Cape Town sky, there was more movement on offer than normally seen here. Usually, Newlands' matches are played in sultry summer, January or later, when the heat can bake the pitch into a strip that favours batting. This time though, the pitch eased out only in the fleeting moments when the golden rays peeped out. Clarke hopes that the gloomy grey will persist into the third day.

"Hopefully it is overcast in the morning because you would have seen the difference when the sun was out this afternoon compared to when it was overcast throughout South Africa's first innings," he said.

Clarke acknowledged that the shining sun did not have an effect on everyone and that his team had played a selection of "disgraceful" shots that consigned them to the fourth lowest total in history. "The sun was out when we were batting, so we can't blame the wicket. All we can do is accept the reality of what happened, learn from it and get your head around what we've got tomorrow. We've got a great opportunity to win another Test match tomorrow morning."

South Africa have assessed the situation in exactly the same way. Knowing that disciplined batting will give them a Test victory, they plan to approach the task in a conservative fashion, after their erratic first-innings effort - "a combination of poor shot selection and then being too tentative at times," as Rudolph described it.

Rudolph said "length bowling" would be the difference on this pitch, because anything too short, as Morne Morkel bowled in Australia's first innings, could be punished. He said the outcome of this match, while having a significant effect on the series, would also play a key role in deciding who takes the upper hand into the next Test.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent