PORT ELIZABETH – No one is counting anything yet. Chickens, matches, series – it is wise not to tempt fate in any contest involving Australia.
It is what makes Mother Cricket such a feared old lady.
But the brilliance of AB de Villiers, the brashness of a tail that was intent on showing they are much better with the bat in hand than their capitulation at Kingsmead professed, and the rage that pumps within Kagiso Rabada on Sunday ensured the Proteas should level the series at St George’s Park.
At the end of the third day, Australia were 180/5, only 41 runs ahead.
Crucially, the men having only to return to the ground on Monday with a small bag only containing their fielding clothes are Australia captain Steve Smith and David Warner.
Both of these fine players – ranked No 1 and 5 respectively on the ICC Test batting ladder – were central to Australia’s chances of firstly wiping out the unexpected 139-run deficit before fleshing out the lead to a defendable total.
However, it was their arch-nemesis that proved to be both their undoing.
Rabada, running in with purpose and menace, got one to swing inwards that sliced between Warner’s bat and pad to crash into the top of off-stump to dismiss the left-hander for 13.
The hot-headed fast bowler certainly enjoyed his success with yet another furious celebration that could once again earn the ire of match referee Jeff Crowe.
There were no such antics from Keshav Maharaj when he had Smith caught behind for 11 – the third time the left-arm spinner has got rid of the Australian captain – but the magnitude of the dismissal was no less.
With Cameron Bancroft (24) playing on against Lungi Ngidi and Rabada also dismissing Shaun Marsh (1) and ultimately Khawaja for 75 late in the piece, the “moving day” unanimously belonged to the hosts.
In fact, the only reason Australia are still breathing is due to the elegance of Khawaja and doggedness of Mitchell Marsh.
The pair erased the deficit with an 87-run and provided some sort of hope for the Australian dressing-room.
But for all the fighting qualities that the Australian pair displayed in the afternoon, it was nothing on the De Villiers show in the morning, though.
There may be questions swirling around to how long he will still be performing in the white flannels of the Proteas in the Test arena, but those are mere trivial matters.
It is much better to appreciate a batsman that has lost none of his mercurial abilities and who will sit alongside the legends of the game when he does indeed call time on his glorious career.
Sunday was an exhibition of how much De Villiers’ skill will be missed, for the 34-year-old tore into a high-quality Australian attack without as much as breaking a sweat.
It was his 22nd Test century and first since returning from his sabbatical.
Not only did De Villiers have absolute control of his innings, but he also masterfully manipulated the strike to shield South Africa’s lower-order batsmen in compiling 126 not out.
Not that Vernon Philander and Maharaj required much protection. Philander showed the temperament of a top-order batsman to score 36, while Maharaj swung with great freedom in getting a quick 30 off 24 balls.
It was that kind of day for the Proteas, and they will hope to make it an even better one on Monday to head to Cape Town all square with two Tests to play.