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Rabada reprieve adds spice to simmering contest

Big Picture

Two pieces of news regarding Kagiso Rabada have emerged since the Port Elizabeth Test. One is that he is free to play in Cape Town, courtesy of a partially successful appeal against his Code of Conduct charge for brushing his shoulder against Steven Smith. If you're reading this preview then it's safe to assume there is no possible way you have missed that news.

The other tit-bit, though, may have passed you by. And that is that Rabada has regained the No. 1 Test bowling ranking from James Anderson, thanks to his 11 wickets at St George's Park. Rabada has been the stand-out bowler in the series so far, and it is possible that his successful appeal will be the deciding factor in the campaign. It is premature to say that he is free to play the remainder of the series - he remains perched on seven demerit points, so even a minor charge in Cape Town could see him suspended for the final Test - but it is notable that he has 19 wickets at 21.00 from his three previous Tests at Newlands. One more good Test there could be enough for South Africa to take an unbeatable 2-1 lead.

But of course this Test is not all about Rabada. Several other factors are at play in Cape Town, and few of them favour Australia. Even if Rabada doesn't fire at Newlands, there is still the small matter of Vernon Philander, whose record there is even more imposing. Philander has piled up 47 Test wickets at 16.34 in Cape Town, where the conditions suit his seaming and swinging style. Australia know this all too well, because when they were humiliated and bowled out for 47 at the venue, Philander took 5 for 15. They must also find a way past the defences of AB de Villiers, whose hundred in Port Elizabeth was one of his best. By contrast, Australia's batsmen have so far failed to score a single century in this series, and unless they can turn that trend around it is difficult to see them halting South Africa's momentum. They can at least take heart from the fact that when they last played a Test at Newlands, David Warner scored a hundred in each innings.

Whatever happens in Cape Town, this has already been a compelling series, and not always for the right reasons. There has been an undeniable tension between the two sides, from send-offs to sledges to shoulder bumps to stairwell argy-bargy. Don't expect a nine-day break between Tests to have cooled things down at all.

Form guide

South Africa WLLWW (last five matches, most recent first)
Australia LWWDW

In the spotlight

AB de Villiers was unlucky not to be named Man of the Match in Port Elizabeth. Rabada's 11-wicket haul was unquestionably outstanding, but in a Test where nobody else seemed to find batting easy, de Villiers looked as if he was playing another game entirely. His unbeaten 126 from 146 balls in the first innings changed the match. It was his first Test hundred in more than three years, and if there was any question as to how he would return after missing most of 2016 and 2017, that innings alone was an emphatic answer.

After taking nine wickets in the first Test in Durban, Mitchell Starc could only manage match figures of 1 for 125 in Port Elizabeth, and the possibility of extra grass on the pitch at Newlands could make it challenging for him to find reverse swing. Starc struggled with a calf problem after the second Test but is expected to take his place in Cape Town, and Australia desperately need him back to his best if they are to prevent South Africa getting away.

Team news

Temba Bavuma has recovered from injury and is likely to replace Theunis de Bruyn, while there is also a question surrounding Lungi Ngidi and a possible toe injury, which could bring Morne Morkel back into the mix.

South Africa: (possible) 1 Dean Elgar, 2 Aiden Markram, 3 Hashim Amla, 4 AB de Villiers, 5 Faf du Plessis (capt), 6 Temba Bavuma, 7 Quinton de Kock (wk), 8 Vernon Philander, 9 Keshav Maharaj, 10 Kagiso Rabada, 11 Morne Morkel/Lungi Ngidi.

Starc and Mitchell Marsh both had injury niggles after the second Test, but the long break between matches is believed to have allowed them sufficient recovery time, and an unchanged line-up appears likely.

Australia: (possible) 1 Cameron Bancroft, 2 David Warner, 3 Usman Khawaja, 4 Steven Smith (capt), 5 Shaun Marsh, 6 Mitchell Marsh, 7 Tim Paine (wk), 8 Mitchell Starc, 9 Pat Cummins, 10 Josh Hazlewood, 11 Nathan Lyon.

Pitch and conditions

There is expected to be some grass on the Cape Town pitch, which may play slow and low. The forecast for the match is mostly fine.

Stats and trivia

  • Australia's two most recent Cape Town Tests could hardly have been any more different: in 2011, they were bowled out for 47 and beaten comfortably, but in 2014 they piled up 494 and 303, and emerged victorious.

  • Steven Smith has now gone three Tests without a hundred, a significant drought by his lofty standards. Last time he played three consecutive Tests without making a century was against South Africa in 2016.

  • Rabada is currently sitting on 902 ratings points on the ICC Test bowling rankings, the 20th highest rating by any bowler in Test history. The highest rating of all time was the 932 retrospectively calculated for England's Sydney Barnes in 1914.

Quotes

"It's important for me to make runs. Forget the captaincy, I always say you need to score runs - that's the most important job for any player or any captain or leader."
Faf du Plessis is looking to find form with the bat

"I feel really good. My hit today was the best for six months."
Steven Smith after training in Cape Town, is also hoping to make his first significant score of the series