Hopes of Australia's first series whitewash over South Africa in 70 years appear closer to fruition after a four-pronged attack bowled the home team into a winning position on the third morning of the Third Test in Sydney today. But it became the Australians' most challenging day of the series nonetheless as spirited resistance from Gary Kirsten (82*) and Boeta Dippenaar (74) ensured that plans of a speedy route to victory were scrapped.

One that ended with the Proteas at 2/209 in their second innings and still 191 runs behind overall, it was the quintessential day of two halves.

South Africa's first innings underwent a sufficient degree of implosion in the morning session to prompt a follow-on, and there was a second innings setback as well in the early afternoon. But a dropped catch fulfilled the part of a turning point, permitting Kirsten and Dippenaar to take centre stage, add 149 runs and render the Australians as flat as the SCG pitch.

That the Test veteran and novice were forced to fashion a fightback was due to another horrendous collapse that had seen six wickets crash for the addition of 61 runs at the start of the day.

Mark Boucher (35) displayed a willingness to take the Proteas' first innings total beyond its eventually paltry 154, and Claude Henderson (9) hung on in a typically dogged 49-minute vigil too. But the trend of disheartened batsmen beating a path back to the pavilion was almost constantly in evidence as play resumed

Neil McKenzie (20) unwisely tucked bat in behind pad as a Shane Warne (3/47) delivery honed in on his stumps; Justin Ontong (9) was struck in front of leg stump by Warne as he played back; Shaun Pollock (6) drove from a thick edge to point off Glenn McGrath (3/35); and Nicky Boje (7) stumbled in more ways than one to be caught short of his ground attempting a third run.

When Boucher lost out to a brilliant catch at silly point after drinks, and Henderson tired of the idea of occupying the crease to thrash a high catch to mid off from Stuart MacGill (3/51), the game looked as good as over.

It was only after the players returned from lunch that the Australian bowlers showed themselves to be human - and perhaps even a touch sympathetic too. Deliveries were overpitched and then dropped in too short, opening up opportunities for runs to be collected with intent as the South Africans literally swung into action a second time.

Mark Waugh was an even more generous host, spilling a regulation chance after Kirsten (on 12) had driven loosely at Brett Lee (1/30) and sent the ball arrowing toward him at navel height at second slip. Waugh's miss prompted the usual round of disbelief from television and radio commentators and caused the fieldsman himself to ruefully shake his head for a few moments.

What it also did, suddenly, was deliver a sense of reawakening to the batting.

Moments earlier, a hearty roar had signalled the demise of opener Herschelle Gibbs (10) after an errant attempt at an on drive ended in the sight of Lee uprooting his off stump.

But it was to prove the crowd's second last chance to celebrate a wicket all day as Kirsten and Dippenaar combined to make the game their own for the next 149 minutes.

Dippenaar led the way, appreciatively greeting a full ball from McGrath (0/35) with a cracking drive through the covers and then reserving similarly swift punishment for the other bowlers as a total of 14 boundaries flowed from his bat.

Kirsten - determinedly capitalising upon his early life - played with character rather than a spirit of defeatism too, defending solidly and scoring runs with conviction to both sides of the wicket.

It's still customary to cup a hand over the mouth and do no more than whisper the names of VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid in these parts. But comparisons with the serene quality of their liaison in Kolkata last year, forged in a similar situation and in similarly oppressive conditions, were rapidly being evoked nonetheless.

The manner of Dippenaar's departure was unfitting - a MacGill (1/52) full toss lashed no further than mid wicket - but his contribution to eradicating more than half of a whopping 400-run first innings deficit had been immense by then.

And, as Jacques Kallis (32*) settled in to join Kirsten and pilot the South Africans to stumps on a pitch offering little in the way of speed or venom, they were - for once in this series - showing that defeat wasn't about to be taken lying down.