Today’s third Test in Cape Town has the makings of a classic – a deadlocked series, evenly-matched teams, the two best bowling attacks in the format, one of the world’s best cricket grounds, and a whole lot of controversy.
As much as the hoopla about player behaviour has distracted from what has been a fantastic series so far, it has also added spice and fascination to this match at Newlands.
With the world’s number one Test bowler, Kagiso Rabada, free to play having had his two-match ban overturned, we will get to saviour his beguiling battles with Steve Smith and David Warner, Australia’s two best batsmen and the men to whom he handed send-offs in the second Test.
Rabada against Warner will be particularly engrossing, given the way in which the quick worked over the Australian in the second innings at Port Elizabeth.
Warner has a good record against Rabada, who has dismissed him only twice in five Tests. But Rabada has begun to hone in on the Australian’s weakness, cramping him for room with straight, short-of-a-length deliveries.
Combined with Rabada’s express pace and steepling bounce, these deliveries have repeatedly troubled Warner in this series, denying him the ability to free his arms and pierce the offside field.
Meanwhile, Smith has finally had a flaw fully exposed, falling three times in four innings this series to left-arm orthodox spin.
The captain on each occasion got into trouble by seemingly misreading the length of those spin deliveries. It will be absorbing to watch how he decides to counter the threat of the Proteas’ fine tweaker Keshav Maharaj.
Yet it is Smith’s head-to-head with Rabada which is most alluring. The number one batsman versus the number one bowler. While Rabada hasn’t yet found a chink in the skipper’s technique, his sheer quality will test the Australian in a way no other quick on the planet can quite replicate.
At Port Elizabeth, Rabada performed at a level few bowlers ever reach. He started this series as arguably the best paceman in the world but, if he maintains that standard over the next two Tests, he will lead South Africa to a series victory and quash any dispute as to who is the format’s supreme bowler.
Adding to the spectacle of the third Test is the fact that it will be played at Newlands, which is not only a gorgeous ground but also consistently produces wonderful pitches. The deck has historically erred in favour of the bowlers, which is a great thing in an era blighted by a surplus of dead surfaces, particularly in Australia.
In the same way Rabada is comfortably the biggest concern for the Australian batsmen, AB de Villiers looms large over the visitors’ attack.
It was extraordinary the ease with which the champion batsman handled such an awesome attack in the first two Tests. No one has looked that consistently supreme against Australia since Kane Williamson during New Zealand’s three-Test tour in late 2015.
How the visitors can trouble De Villiers is anyone’s guess. They may be left to pursue their basic strategy from the first two Tests – dismiss the rest of the team.
If the pitch is moist and the outfield lush, as they often are at Newlands, then reverse swing will be much harder to come by than in the first two Tests.
This will place extra pressure on Australia’s quicks, who so far have done a fine job with the old ball but have at times wasted the shiny version. Aside from Pat Cummins, who was solid, all were below their best at Port Elizabeth.
Mitchell Starc seemed to be lacking rhythm and was down on pace. Josh Hazlewood bowled well in patches but was missing the consistency which has made him a superb Test bowler. Spinner Nathan Lyon too often was flat in the trajectory of his deliveries, reducing his trademark dip, drift and bounce.
The biggest positive on the bowling front was the confident and skilful display by all-rounder Mitch Marsh. But his bowling workload may be limited at Cape Town due to a groin strain he suffered in the second Test.
Marsh’s biggest role, however, will be with the blade. Surprisingly, given his struggles against quality pace earlier in his career, Marsh has played Rabada as comfortably as any of the Aussies.
Yet again the conversation circles back to Rabada. He has been the focal point all week and, for mostly different reasons, will continue to be over the next five days.