Proteas: The final leg of the Test run
Suggestions that the deciding Test match against Australia starting on Friday at the Waca was the most important of the post-isolation era were dismissed as "over the top" by Proteas coach Gary Kirsten. But it's perfectly possible to see him changing that verdict in the fullness of time.
Victory, or even a draw, would open a gap at the top of the world rankings not enjoyed by any other team for five years.
Kirsten is a keen runner and has taken to competing in marathons in recent years. He enjoys nothing more than a challenge, and the enduring strength of mind and body required to run 42km reminds him a little of Test cricket.
Compared with the team's physiotherapist, Brandon Jackson, however, Kirsten is a crawling infant. Jackson has completed 20 Comrades Marathons. Yes, 20. His greatest challenge during the past three days, of course, has been trying to mend the strain in Jacques Kallis's right hamstring, an injury that would normally take four times as long to heal.
But it is no wonder that running analogies have been used so often among the squad in Australia in recent weeks, and all of them have used the imagery and symbolism of the marathon. When Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers resumed on the final morning in Adelaide with the scoreboard reading a hopeless 77-4, the picture they had in their mind was of a long, steep hill.
The hill was so steep they could not even see the top of it, so they didn't try to look for it or think about it. They just jogged from one lamppost to the next, pacing themselves as they went. They knew there was an end somewhere, but energy expended concentrating on it would not only have been wasted but also possibly fatal. So they didn't, which is a skill far, far easier to master in theory than in practice.
Do not think about this weekend and what you plan to do on Saturday. Do not! Are you going out for dinner? Going to the beach? Children have school sports? No! It is still Friday …
Inability to build a lead
The analogy has now moved on. At team chats in the days leading up to this Test match, the Test match marathon has become the ultra-marathon of the series. The Proteas have had cramp, suffered stiffness, had shoe problems and even stopped for emergency medical treatment. Australia have run as hard as they can in an effort to break away and build a lead, but have been unable to do so.
Two-thirds of the way into their Comrades, one team is finally getting into its running. The other admitted to feeling "hurt" by their inability to build a lead earlier this week.
"They have thrown everything they have at us over the first tests but we are still standing," said Graeme Smith after Adelaide. "We are still here and we still have a chance to do something very special by winning here again."
Dale Steyn added a similar thought two days ago: "We haven't played our best so far. If we find our best game here in the third Test, we have a good chance of going home 1-0 up in the series."
'Punter' in pressure Test to bow out in glory
Just as Matthew Hayden's fading career provided an ongoing distraction for Australia's players and management four years ago, former captain Ricky Ponting's wretched record against South Africa in the past four Tests had been fuelling speculation about his future to boiling point. Perhaps that played a role in his sudden decision to make this weekend's Test match his last.
Ponting was captain four years ago and saw the agonies of indecision suffered by Hayden, whose career was defined by an iron will and inner belief that had to be
missileproof to sustain him. Now it was his turn. Despite the media frenzy, there was not the slightest inkling that he would walk away until Thursday morning.
"I've given everything to the game, the last 20 years of my life. I've given it all. Now there's nothing left to give," he said, coming reasonably close to shedding a tear but not quite getting there, unlike his successor, Michael Clarke, who let slip a few.
A furiously intensive fitness campaign and a sack of domestic Sheffield Shield preseason matches had convinced Ponting and most Australians that he could push on towards yet another Ashes campaign, but Test match cricket is different to anything else.
One-time opposite number
Since the Wanderers and Newlands Tests last year, Ponting has made just two double-figure scores (62 and 16) in seven innings against South Africa, which have included three ducks.
His coach, former Proteas mentor Mickey Arthur, had offered Ponting his unconditional support, but did admit before Ponting's decision to retire that "Perth will be a very, very big Test match for Ricky." The writing may have been on the wall, but Ponting showed no signs of noticing.
Smith paid tribute to Ponting before the tour and again on hearing the news by calling his one-time opposite number "the most competitive man I ever played against".
If Ponting was, in part, motivated by a desire not to create a distraction before and during a Test match that will decide the number one-ranked Test team in the world, then he will be disappointed. The distractions will be everywhere – but at least they will be full of positive energy for the home side rather than negativity. Australia will spend five days farewelling an icon.
"It's certainly something we'll be aware of, but we can't afford to think too much about that," said Smith. "We just have to concentrate on preparing ourselves and playing our own game. He has been a great credit to the game and his country, but we'll shake hands and wish him well in five days' time."– Neil Manthorp