March 17, 2002

Third Test in the balance at Kingsmead

Some 66 overs into South Africa's second innings Australia found inspiration under Durban's blazing sun from an unlikely quarter. Mark Waugh, whom some speculated might be axed for this match, grabbed two unexpected wickets to keep Australia in what has been an extraordinary third and final Castle Lager Test match.

Waugh's breakthrough unlocked the South African middle order after a century from Herschelle Gibbs should have pretty much wrapped up his team's first victory over Australia this summer. All this Australian team needs, though, is a scent of blood and before the South Africans had caught their breath, they had slipped from 216 for one to 232 for four.

The victory target, after Australia had been bowled out for 186 seven overs into the day, is 335. At stumps South Africa were 264 for four and on balance you would probably have to favour the home team. But that is to assume that the locals are a happy, settled team, free from anxiety and confident of their own abilities.

In fact, the opposite is true after five successive drubbings from Australia. The match is still there to be won by South Africa, but it will be a test of their nerve and it is a fact that more often than not this summer, South Africa have been found wanting whenever they have tried to go toe to toe with Australia.

Waugh was brought into the attack by his brother Steve pretty much as a weapon of last resort. None of the four frontline bowlers had made an impression on a pitch that, despite all that happened on Saturday, continues to play as well as the batsmen of either side could have wished for.

Waugh struck with his 11th ball when Graeme Smith top-edged a pull for Adam Gilchrist to allow the ball to drop into his gloves. The catch ended a 74-run second wicket partnership of which Smith's contribution was 42.

Gibbs then tried to hit Waugh over midwicket in the offspinner's next over, failed to get the distance and was gone, caught by Damien Martyn for 104. It was his sixth Test century and his first against Australia. It was a splendid exhibition of his talents, but it was also a silly way to get out and at a bad time for his team.

Neil McKenzie made just 4 before Shane Warne claimed his 100th wicket against South Africa, a magnificent catch by Matthew Hayden as he ran away towards the boundary from wide mid on. Ashwell Prince almost ran himself out and was nearly bowled hitting across the line against Waugh but managed, somehow, to stay with Jacques Kallis until stumps.

It had all seemed so promising earlier in the day for South Africa. Steve Waugh took his score to 42, thereby ensuring that his Test average stands exactly at 50 now, before he was splendidly caught at second slip by Kallis off Makhaya Ntini and Glenn McGrath had his off stump removed by the first ball he faced.

South Africa needed a solid start and it was given them by Gibbs and Gary Kirsten. The partnership, 142, was only the seventh century stand by a South African opening pair against Australia and the third since South Africa's readmission and while it might not have broken Australia, it would certainly have brought renewed hope flooding into the South African dressing room.

For once the Australian bowlers looked short of ideas and it took a spectacular run out to end the stand. Martyn's sharp pickup and throw was gather by Brett Lee who demolished the wicket completely with Kirsten nowhere in sight. Kirsten had made 64 and, probably, most South Africans would have preferred the unpredictable Gibbs to have been the victim, but in this instance, it was not a matter of choice.

Gibbs, though, played with greater restraint and common sense than he has shown all summer. He was at the crease for just under five hours, and although his downfall finally came about by way of an ill-judged shot, he could at least argue that he had made few other mistakes in energy-sapping heat.

Australia took the second new ball three overs before the close and will have a final fling with it on Monday morning. South Africa need 71 to win and Australia have to take six wickets. It is hard to believe that the tourists will not back themselves to win. The real question, though, is whether South Africa believe they can finish the match off. They have Jacques Kallis, on 35, at the crease and you tend to think that if he stays there, the home side will prevail. If he falls early on Monday morning, though, then all bets would be off.