The best of Test cricket
There is a reason crime series television will never go out of fashion. Besides the car-crash curiosity of human nature, that wants to peek at other's offences without being part of them, the suspense, intrigue and mystery is what makes the shows watchable. What makes them successful, though, is the way suspense hangs thick in the air, subplots create violent twists around unseen corners and anticipation builds to a crescendo.
The same applies to absorbing Test cricket. When played between two, equally matched and competitive sides in conditions that encourage a genuine contest between bat and ball, the intricacies and beauties of the game unfold like a flower in the springtime.
South Africa and Australia have produced many such gripping contests in summers past. In 1952-53, an under-rated South Africa travelled to Australia and drew a four-Test series when no-one though they would come away unscarred. In 1993-94, in another drawn series, South Africa recorded a memorable win in Sydney, with Fanie de Villiers and Allan Donald the architects of an unlikely triumph. In 2008-09 in Perth and Melbourne, South Africa made history on two counts: chasing down a mammoth 414 and beating Australia for the first time away from home.
Apart from the 1969-70 clean sweep, Australia have dominated South Africa at home, until now, with South Africa one day away from getting their own back. They will have to bowl with discipline, which has evaded them at times, and with consistency that has played hide and seek so far. Even if South Africa are not able to close out the series, they should be able to take pride out of the intensity of the mini-battles and the quality of cricket they produced.
Russell Domingo, South Africa's assistant coach, pointed out at the end of the third day's play that "many matches are decided on what happens in the third innings", and he may be proven right. South Africa's day started with Hashim Amla 11 runs short of a century and AB de Villiers at the other end, well set and poised to go on to something bigger.
What played out in the 168 minutes after that was a cricket-lover's dream. Under cloudy skies 18-year-old Pat Cummins, whose smile only disappears when he steps onto a cricket field, ran in like he knew exactly what to bowl. Shane Watson said that Cummins' cricketing instincts are remarkable for someone of his age and it showed when he set Jacques Kallis up on the third day.
On Sunday morning, it was the turn of de Villiers, who Cummins was drawing into the drive. As soon as Cummins got the length right, de Villiers poked at the ball awkwardly and sent a high catch Michael Clarke's way.
The partnership was broken but Amla needs more than a fractured stand to rattle his nerves. He saw off Cummins to reach his second century of the series, a knock of such self-assuredness that it could stand as an example of how a Test innings should be played.
In a complete turnaround, however, Amla did not continue is such sagely fashion. Three balls after completing his ton, he was involved in the moment of madness of the match. He stuttered in his run and Ashwell Prince was forced to sacrifice himself. It was the only run-out in the series, so far.
Mark Boucher, much like Ricky Ponting, is at the stage where every innings is considered potentially career-ending. He did himself no favours after failing to lead the tail for the second time in the match. His top-edge in the first innings came at the height of South Africa's collapse, but the way in which he was deceived by Nathan Lyon's flight in the second innings was more concerning. Although South Africa have not groomed a wicketkeeper to replace Boucher at Test level, the need for them to start the process becomes more pressing with each match. Boucher's non-performance with the bat in this series is a further illustration of that.
Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn flew the flag for fast bowlers who believe that they can contribute with the bat. Both have hard-hitting skills that should be nurtured, and their 48-run partnership could still prove to be the crucial contribution in South Africa's second innings.
With tension governing the morning session, what happened after lunch was a release. Cummins ripped through Philander and Morne Morkel, before Steyn executed his own brand of aggression, protecting Imran Tahir from the strike and lashing out when appropriate. Quick bowlers of Cummins' quality are as valuable as a spotting of a leopard in the wild and to see the teenager marry pace and control in the way that he did bodes well for the future of Australian fast bowling.
While Cummins relied on pace and bounce, Vernon Philander used length, accuracy, and seam movement to rock Australia with a double-strike early in their chase. His punctures brought to the crease a legend facing a burden like no other. Ponting had been given the perfect stage to redeem himself and, so far, with an unbeaten half-century he is close to doing so, even if he bows out of the game at the end of this match.
Ponting's sincerity in passing on some of what he has learned to Australia's younger lot is evident. In Potchefstroom, during Australia's tour match against South Africa A, Ponting was spotted at a restaurant joking with Usman Khawaja, the man with whom he shared a crucial partnership with today, and in deep conversation with Shane Watson, long after the rest of the squad had left. With both Khawaja and Watson, his commitment to Australian cricket was in full view.
Ponting now has the opportunity to assert himself once more, with the end beckoning. South Africa have the opportunity to break the shackles of years of Australian dominance. Whether Ponting crafts a win, or South Africa steal it from under him, the anticipation of a memorable Test is almost guaranteed to be met. The intrigue of the oldest form of the game should burn brighter at its conclusion.
Hashim Amla put it best when he said, "The purists of the game would have enjoyed the challenge and the delicate nature of how thin the game has been," Amla said. "Both the Newlands Test and this one have been good adverts for Test cricket in different ways."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent