DURBAN – After the carnage of Friday, there was relative calm at Kingsmead on day three of the first Test.
Australia built on their 189-run cushion from the first dig, and resolutely tugged their way to 213/9 by the time the clouds took over for a lead of 402.
That total is already far too many runs in most people’s minds, given the South African crumble that is routinely served up in Durban.
And yet, there was pride in the manner that the Proteas stuck to their task on the third day.
In the first hour, as David Warner and Cameron Bancroft went about their work, it looked as if there may be a frightful day of leather chasing for the home side.
Warner looked at ease, and Bancroft had a few early drives to get his feet going.
With that start, he went on to bank a half-century whose worth may be more apparent as the series unravels, because he may well relax a lot more.
Warner, as is his wont, fell on his sword when looking to flay Kagiso Rabada over mid-on, but only smearing him to substitute fielder Wiaan Mulder, who clung on gratefully.
A Warner with a licence to charge is not a friendly sight for a weary attack, and that early success cheered South Africa and the smattering of Durbanites at Kingsmead no end.
Usman Khawaja came and went, caught trying to reverse-sweep the enduring Keshav Maharaj.
The Proteas spinner has taken eight wickets in his maiden Test on home turf and every one of them have been celebrated with gusto.
400 run lead. It’s gonna be a great day tomorrow. Come on Aussie!!
Far from being just a run-stopper and partnership breaker, he may emerge from this summer as a genuine threat for his captain. He beat Bancroft in the flight, a little thing that most South African spinners are taught to forget for fear that they may disappear.
Maharaj doesn’t mind being bunted over his head, because he understands that he is in the game. And, what is more, his captain understands that, too.
Another who was in the game for the Proteas was Kagiso Rabada, the fastest bowler in the home ranks. He had looked a bit off in the first innings, spraying it about.
But he was back at his miserly, snarling best on day three, and his return of 2/28 in 13 overs was the resumption of regular Rabada service.
Morné Morkel, too, got in amongst them in the second dig as he closed in on the exclusive ‘300 Club’.
#Milestone Another round of applause for the Mighty #.#ProteaFire
ICYMI Play has stopped because of bad light in Kingsmead. AUS 213/9 (71.4 ovs), lead by 402 runs. #SAvAUS #SunfoilTest pic.twitter.com/YfbkFnVF0o
After his three scalps in the afternoon, the beanpole now stands at 297 victims in Test cricket, though the stat that will most concern him is that he and his side are now 402 runs in arrears.
Australia’s stroke-players all struggled for fluency on a wicket that is drying up and starting to really take turn – as well as encourage the deadly reverse-swing that Mitchell Starc thrives on.
South Africa’s batsmen would have rejoiced at the wickets that fell, while also making notes of how tough the task in front of them has become.
There was once a dead rubber in 2002 at Kingsmead, where the Proteas chased 340 against Australia. It seems a lifetime ago now, of course, and the chances of even getting close to that are slim to none.
For one thing, that Australian team was suffering from the Dead Rubber Syndrome that only afflicts world-beaters who get series over and done with at the earliest convenience.
Subsequently, it is hard for them to rouse themselves for the fixtures that have to be honoured by body, if not quite soul.
This Aussie side are on a mission, and they are still at the start of the series. They will want to beat South Africa, and badly, too.
But, more than an unlikely release of intensity from Australia, the Proteas are playing on a different surface to that of 2002.
That strip allowed the cavalier Herschelle Gibbs to stick around and make merry, even against an attack that had luminaries such as McGrath, Lee, Gillespie and Warne.
The Aussie class of 2018 is just as deadly, and they have a wicket that is playing into their hands.
The reasonable assessment is that South Africa will do well to take the first Test into Monday. The end is nigh.