Spirited South Africa make a fight of it at Newlands
Three days into a pivotal second Test match and South Africa appear to have rediscovered the fighting spirit so sadly absent from their cricket for much of this summer. With the match teasingly poised, the home team are 307 for four in their second innings, ahead by 163 and with the possibility looming that Australia, for once, might have a serious target to chase in the fourth innings.
If the second day of the Newlands Test produced wonderful cricket, so too did the third day at Newlands, although the tempo and mood of the match were different. It was never a grind as South Africa chipped away at a 143-run deficit, but neither was it carefree as the home side built one partnership after another to keep Australia, and Shane Warne in particular, at bay.
Warne started the day from the Kelvin Grove end and finished it after getting through 42 overs. He took three for 100, probing and teasing the South Africans, but never quite managing the domination required by Australia.
There were runs pretty much all the way down the order for South Africa. Herschelle Gibbs and Gary Kirsten put on 84 for the first wicket before Warne had Gibbs taken at silly point for 39 to give Australia another sight at new cap Graeme Smith, but if the visitors had been thinking of a soft touch, Smith was determined to prove them wrong.
"I wasn't very happy with the way I got out (for 3) in the first innings," said Smith on Sunday evening. "It was about getting over my initial nervousness and being out in the field on Saturday helped."
Smith and Kirsten dug in either side of lunch to put on 99 for the second wicket before Kirsten arrived at 87, the Australian Devil's Number. And it worked for Australia. Brett Lee crashed one in to Kirsten's box, doubling up the batsman and, it was later revealed, shattering the protector before pushing Kirsten onto the back foot to trap him lbw at 183 for two.
Smith believes that the influx of new blood in the South African team has helped soothe some of the bruises suffered by those who toured Australia and were whipped at the Wanderers. Certainly Jacques Kallis looked to be renewed as he started his innings with a flurry of boundaries as the third wicket produced 71 for South Africa.
For once Steve Waugh had to start looking around for additional bowlers and he employed his brother, Damien Martyn and himself in brief spells, but it was Warne who broke through, albeit with some generosity from umpire Steve Bucknor.
Warne turned one into the left-hander, the ball squeezed between bat and pad and Bucknor gave Smith out caught at the wicket for 68 and although it was impossible to tell from later television replays whether the ball had touched anything important on its way through.
Even so, South Africa were better placed at 254 for three that even the loss of Kallis for an unusually uninhibited 73 from Kallis at 284 for four was not a critical blow for South Africa. There were occasional moments of anxiety as Neil McKenzie and Ashwell Prince took South Africa to stumps (especially during a searching last over from Jason Gillespie to Prince), but no further successes for Australia.
According to Smith South Africa have set their sights on a target of at least 400 in this innings. This would ask Australia to score upwards of 250 on a pitch that has played beautifully, but has taken turn and now hints at uneven bounce. If the South Africans can realise, or even better this ambition, Australia could find themselves chasing an awkward target.
A South African victory here would level the series and a draw in Durban would relieve Australia of their world champion status. It is, of course, a completely absurd system, but whom would the South Africans be to argue with ICC rules.