DURBAN – Not even Oscar-winning screenplay writers could have penned what occurred after lunch at Kingsmead on Sunday.
There was a passing of the Proteas guard as the next generation emerged from beneath the considerable cloak of optimism provided by a generation whose days appear numbered with each barren series.
With Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis back in the hut by lunch, the obituaries for the rest of the Australian series were already being written.
In pursuit of 417, a wobbly 64/4 was expected to become 100 or so all out.
Australia were going to steamroll a pitiful South Africa, and they would go on and do the same in Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and even Johannesburg.
And then, and then, and then...
South Africa’s next generation of batsmen, led by the heir apparent Aiden Markram, made a profound statement to the opposition, to the prophets of Proteas doom and perhaps most pertinently, to themselves.
They belong at this level, and they confirmed as much on a symbolic day four.
When De Villiers was run out – having faced one ball and made an incredible misjudgement – South African hearts dropped like lead balloons.
De Villiers had stood alone in the first dig, so his brain-freeze, normally reserved for chaotic chases in World Cups, was surely the beginning of the end.
Faf du Plessis was then comprehensively bowled by Pat Cummins with the sort of in-swinging snorter that sends tsunamis of apprehension across change-rooms because of the sheer violence of it all.
The match was there for the Aussie taking, a young middle-order left to slaughter by their aging warhorses.
Every generation has that moment when they pick up the baton, and Sunday may well be that day for the Proteas Test side.
Led by the magnificent Markram – who was supported by the dogged Theunis de Bruyn and then by the dashing Quinton de Kock – South Africa made a statement.
They puffed out their young chests, dared Mitchell Starc and the rest to give them their best and, for three wonderful hours, fought Aussie fire with Protea fire.
It was refreshing, and the sight of a snarling Starc sniping at a defiant De Bruyn was one that the Aussies hadn’t banked on as they coffed their midday meal.
It was brilliant Test cricket, an intriguing mix of defence and delicious strokeplay. Markram has never looked taller in a South African shirt, as the situation seemed to bring out the very best of him.
Some men retire to silent corners in the midst of such situations, their instincts betraying their eternal ambitions for the ultimate stage.
But Markram didn’t walk away from the stage, instead taking the chance to put down his marker, and show the world that he is a man for the biggest stage.
De Bruyn (36) would have been devastated to fall to Josh Hazlewood, having repelled the Starc examination.
De Kock (81 not out) was short of runs and fluidity this summer, but he too found inspiration in the heat of battle.
Of course, Starc and his cronies still had the final say as their middle session of strife was assuaged by a devastating final session.
Markram fell to a moment of ill-discipline for a sanguine 143, and then Starc stole in on the exposed end with the brutality of a seasoned assassin.
Vernon Philander, Keshav Maharaj and Kagiso Rabada were blown away by the hurricane, and De Kock was left hapless at the other end.
Unless there is a monsoon hovering on the East Coast, Australia will still win, but they will know that they are in a scrap this summer, even if they blow away the top layer of South Africa’s batting card.
Tellingly, only Markram, De Bruyn and De Kock reached double figures for the Proteas, and that is not good enough for one of the best Test sides in the world.
The match nearly ended late on day four, but the cluster of wickets came with a dark cloud, one which eventually convinced officials to extend the show to Monday morning.
Australia need one more wicket, and De Kock and Morné Morkel need 124 runs. Even Hollywood doesn’t deliver the kind of fairy-tale South Africa need.