Warner, Johnson at peak of powers
In examining Australia's resurgence against England and South Africa, many possible catalysts can be tossed up for consideration. The arrival of Darren Lehmann as coach stands as one signal moment, and the collective hunger for success that had built up in Australian cricket over some years lurching between mediocrity and ineptitude offers another explanation. So too does the fact that in Australia and South Africa, Michael Clarke's team have largely found fertile conditions for their preferred approach to the game, favouring velocity with the ball, initiative with the bat and high energy in the field.
Yet the most fundamental marker of the team's success can be found in contrasting personal narratives for a handful of cricketers in each of the three countries. Australia's two most outsized talents, David Warner and Mitchell Johnson, are at a peak of fitness, motivation, skill and mentality that has allowed Clarke to unleash them at their very best. In contrast, England and South Africa have grappled with the reality of pivotal figures beyond their peak as players, leaders or team-men, time and tide having caught up with them.
It is quite a list, of those senior men reaching a moment of personal crisis or retirement realisation when confronted by Clarke's team. Jonathan Trott, Graeme Swann, Kevin Pietersen and now Graeme Smith have all passed from Test match view across these two series. Andy Flower, England's erstwhile team director, also slid from his role in that time. Australia, grown increasingly bold in their outlook as they witnessed the feats of Johnson and Warner, have meanwhile remained happily settled, all team members equally focused on the task at hand and not feeling any need to think beyond it.
This is not to say that Australia's show of strength has been the deciding factor in any of the decisions made. In Smith's case it was just one of many, from a young family with roots in two nations and a career now 12 years old, to the labyrinthine politics and distractions of leading a cricket nation of such diversity. Trott was overwhelmed by stress and dark thoughts he had largely been able to manage over his time in an England cap, Swann felt the increasing effects of a chronic elbow problem, Pietersen exhausted his state of détente with team management, and Kallis recognised the dulling of his reflexes even before battle was joined, leaving an enormous hole in his team.
Yet the sight of a hungry horde rushing headlong into one's path has the tendency to crystallise any encroaching desire for the quiet life. It has been Johnson and Warner leading that charge for Australia, playing a kind of muscular, intimidating cricket that is thrilling to watch and disheartening for an opponent unable to summon the resources to match it. On day four at Newlands, both men offered up passages of their most brazen play, no doubt providing Smith with a certain reassurance that he had made the right decision - so swift and sure were Warner and Johnson that only the most alert and committed of combatants could be expected to hold them.
Warner's finest batting of this match and series had already been and gone when he walked out to bat in the morning, his first-innings hundred the best and most complete since he compiled a first, against New Zealand on a seaming Bellerive Oval wicket in 2011. But the disdain he exhibited in crashing the hosts to all parts of a ground they had been accustomed to dominate on was still breathtaking. Among the most compelling qualities Warner can offer a team is the confidence he inspires in other batsmen. Morne Morkel has been terrifying at times in this series, but his treatment by Warner has made every other batsman think him a little more mortal.
For Smith, setting a plan to claim Warner's wicket has been perhaps the most maddening on-field exercise of his entire captaincy. The more Warner has matured, the more adept he has become at manipulating a field and a bowler to his advantage. Morkel is often criticised for dropping too short - against Warner the bouncer has often seemed his only option to prevent a boundary or a single. Similarly Smith has not been able to win through either attack or defence. The lopsided battle between captain and batsman reached its climax when Smith sent all nine fielders to the Newlands fence, only to watch Warner squirt a boundary fine of third man.
The only time Warner did not crash through Smith's fields was when JP Duminy pursued a line wide of the stumps into the footmarks with his part-time spin. This seemed more a matter of Warner stubbornly unprepared to fall for such a stratagem than a sudden aversion to scoring; after lunch normal service resumed, and the opener's familiar leap toasted his second century of the match. Instances of batsmen cracking more than 500 runs in a three-Test series are few. To do the trick in this series, on foreign territory, is an achievement Warner may never quite top.
Johnson has of course had a previous peak on South African shores, his 2009 series the ideal he was striving to return to when taking an extended break from the game in 2011-12. On both occasions his furious speed has been allied to accuracy, leaving batsmen with nothing loose on which to feed, and nowhere to hide. His command over Smith in this series has been near total, and it was fitting that the captain's final innings ended with a short ball, a fend and a catch at short leg - grateful no doubt to have avoided another broken hand from a Johnson bullet. Dean Elgar was then no match for a facsimile of the ball that castled Alastair Cook in Adelaide, pace and just enough movement to beat a groping blade before dismantling the stumps.
At 32, Johnson is older than many fast bowlers at their peak. But as Michael Holding has previously observed, the earlier break from the game and a wayward career before it leaves Johnson fresher than he might otherwise have been, and the better to accompany Warner on further ransackings of international opposition. Pondering how he and Johnson had met England and South Africa at an opportune moment, Warner recognised now was their time, a fruitful phase that will eventually meet its end.
"It's always handy when someone bowls 150kph, but I just think where we're both at in our stage of our careers, we don't go out there and think these guys are going to retire," he said. "Whether it was form that might have brought that down with Graeme Swann or Graeme Smith, we'll never know, all we can do is keep playing to the best of our ability. It's going to happen in time as well, India with Dravid and Laxman retired as well. We're coming to the age where the older guys are starting to push on a little bit and look for other careers after cricket."
Australia have numerous key components far nearer to the end than the beginning; Brad Haddin, Ryan Harris and Chris Rogers to name three. Yet Warner and Johnson were both followed up on day four by cameos from others who can ensure a continuity of success from one generation to the next. Steven Smith's impish talent took him to 36 runs from 20 balls as the declaration ticked near, before James Pattinson's pace and reverse swing accounted for Hashim Amla in lengthening evening shadows. For Johnson and Warner the moment is now, but there is enough around them to suggest the sun can shine on Australia's cricketers for some time yet.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here