Like Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer before him, Australia's Damien Martyn knows the experience of having plumbed the depths of an international cricket career. Quite fitting toward the end of this world championship battle, then, that it should be those three players who have again helped Australia to stand tall by the end of the second day of the Third Test against South Africa in Sydney.

After the twin left handers had held court yesterday, it was the turn of right handed batsman Martyn (117) to dominate today in seamlessly transforming a vigilant innings into a flashy century. With South Africa reduced to 4/93 by stumps as it pursues Australia's monstrous first innings total of 554, the effect of his fourth Test ton is already manifest.

Hayden, Langer and Martyn have all been left to fight their way back into this side after incurring the wrath of the national selection panel at various stages of their careers. And yet, after Martyn's clinical disassembly of the South African attack today, few players in the world are closer to the top of the game right now.

Laced by ongoing controversy about the inclusion of Justin Ontong in its eleven, it was meanwhile a cheerless day for the Proteas.

Martyn started nervously as Australia resumed at 5/308, playing and missing a number of times and also skying a pull off the bowling of Shaun Pollock (3/109). Further difficulties were posed by the thought that this ground had previously yielded only two half-centuries for him in 11 years of first-class cricket, and the notion that he was burdened with the responsibility of rebuilding Australia's innings after a mini-collapse.

Not to mention the fact that his previous Test innings at the SCG - also against South Africa - was his last at the level for six years.

But none of it mattered.

He was initially slow to accumulate runs and not all of his strokes were cultured, yet his batting was so controlled that the match became a net session. Confidence translated itself into an exotic mix of attacking shots. Serial use of the reverse sweep even featured - the shot played impulsively at first but then expertly as the South African spinners insisted on bowling to vacant acreage behind point.

His cutting was deft and his cover driving was also outstanding in the face of both slow and fast bowling. To loud acclamation from a good-natured (though far from overflowing) crowd, it was fitting that his century was raised with a neat late cut. It was as if revenge, the exorcism of a past demon, and mastery of the attack was bound together in every stroke.

On an truly-paced pitch, the bowling meanwhile reverted to generous instead of perilous. There were no easy ways through as Shane Warne (37), Adam Gilchrist (34), Brett Lee (29) and Stuart MacGill (20) all added further weight to Martyn's runs. Albeit that there was appropriate reward for Nicky Boje (4/63), four of the five Australian wickets to fall - eventually - were the result of miscued attacking strokes rather than outright victories for the bowlers.

The same could not be said when the South African upper order arrived.

Openers Herschelle Gibbs (32) and Gary Kirsten (18) tried to inject conviction with a stand that generated 37 stubborn runs. It wasn't too long, though, before Glenn McGrath (2/25) maintained his excellent record against the latter by forcing the ball to spear high to third slip off the shoulder of the bat.

Captain Steve Waugh delayed the introduction of Warne (0/18) into the attack, pairing McGrath with the team's other leg break bowler in MacGill (2/30) on a pitch suddenly looking far more receptive to spin.

It proved a masterstroke.

Boeta Dippenaar (3) wisely elected not to hit a single shot in the air but continued his horror series anyway, playing all around a seaming ball from McGrath to be bowled.

Then MacGill gained not only his first Test scalp in 12 months but also the one that the Australian side as a whole has struggled to collect for the entirety of the series. Jacques Kallis (4) was confronted by a wicked delivery, stabbing indecisively at a perfectly-pitched and menacingly-ripping leg break to thin edge to Gilchrist behind the stumps.

When Gibbs drove extravagantly at MacGill to send a comfortable catch to slip, the scoreline had plunged to a disastrous 4/77. It was looking like the series could end tomorrow.

Just as well that Ontong (8*) - with men clustered around the bat - showed more starch than many of his teammates, joining with Neil McKenzie (20*) in a survival act in the shadows of stumps.

In extreme heat, the South Africans were under extreme pressure. Again.