THE Proteas will have rightly celebrated their successful rearguard action in Adelaide last night, but as they draw a deep breath here today they will ruthlessly put that splendid achievement behind them and contemplate some sobering realities.
The main fact that will give Gary Kirsten and Graeme Smith pause is that Australia have had the better of the two Test matches played in Brisbane and Adelaide.
The margin between the two teams at the Gabba was a fine one – both teams could claim to have dominated two of the four days (one being rained out), with the Proteas claiming the high ground on days one and three while the Aussies dominated days four and five.
At Adelaide, however, the margin was wider.
Michael Clarke, David Warner and Mike Hussey made the first day one of the worst that South Africa have suffered in Test cricket in recent years.
A total of 482/5 was only 12 short of the record number of runs scored nearly 100 years ago.
Well though they fought to claw back some of that lost ground, the Proteas could never fully recover from the carnage the Australians wrought on that first day.
From Friday onwards it was a case of damage control, a project the South Africans carried out with outstanding success, climaxing in Faf du Plessis’s heroic effort yesterday.
The consequences of the second drawn Test were pointed out by Smith when he observed that the Proteas now have the opportunity to win their second consecutive series in Australia.
So far, however, there have been precious few signs that they have the wood on the Australians.
Most of the positive South African headlines have revolved around the batsmen (Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis in Brisbane; Smith, Kallis and Du Plessis in Adelaide).
The key question the South African brains trust must be mulling over is: “How can we take 20 Australian wickets?”
The brutal fact is that the number one bowler in Test cricket, Dale Steyn, has had a modest tour to date.
In Brisbane his return of 1/129 was disappointing; in Adelaide, a match analysis of 4/129 didn’t exactly set the world alight.
The depressing fact is that Steyn only occasionally bowls at the pace we expect of him (the mid-140s), sitting in the mid-130s for most of the time.
Second, and most importantly, he’s not shaping the ball. If you bowl gun-barrel straight on these true, batsman-friendly pitches, you’re not going to dismiss many batsmen.
Assistant coach Russell Domingo brushed this issue aside the other day when he said the Australian conditions were batsman-friendly; how, then, did Steyn do so well on the Proteas’ last trip here in 2008/9 when he took 18 wickets in the three-Test series, including that magical 10-wicket haul at the Melbourne Cricket Ground?
We can only hope Steyn takes some inspiration from that series in Perth this week.
South Africa’s leading bowler in this series has been Morne Morkel, who has bowled his heart out.
Before the Adelaide Test, Australian opener Ed Cowan, who struck a century in the first Test, named Morkel as his most dangerous opponent, claiming that he bowled well with very little luck in Brisbane.
So far the tall paceman has picked up 11 wickets, with his superb performance in the Australian first innings (5/146) being the outstanding bowling effort of the series.
His work rate has also been impressive, with 80 overs under his belt, the most by any Protea bowler.
It remains to be seen, however, just how Kirsten and Smith see the composition of the side for Perth, with Kallis still a contender for a batting-only spot and Vernon Philander – who has yet to take a wicket on tour – on the road back to fitness.
All-rounder Ryan McLaren, who arrives in Perth today as cover for Kallis, further complicates the picture, while Rory Kleinveldt was a vastly improved bowler at Adelaide after his false start in Brisbane.
The only obvious decision, after his nightmare in Adelaide, is that leg-spinner Imran Tahir must carry the drinks in Perth.