South Africa's aim of challenging England's status as the world's No 1 Test side is in danger of again being undermined by their inability to win at home. They have not recorded a series success on their own soil for three years and, facing a deficit of 426 runs with two days remaining of the second Test in Durban, have plenty of batting to do if they are to prevent Sri Lanka levelling the series.
South Africa have let home leads slip against India and most recently Australia, but failure to beat a Sri Lankan side that has a dire record there, has lost its last three series and is a work in progress following the retirements of Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas would be especially galling for Graeme Smith, the Proteas captain. Yesterday Kumar Sangakkara's century, after just three runs in his three previous innings, appeared to have ushered the Test beyond the reached Smith's side. Sangakkara added 104 with Dinesh Chandimal for the sixth wicket, the debutant wicketkeeper making a second half-century, to bar South Africa's route back into the contest after they had glimpsed an opening when the tourists were 141 for 5.
Sri Lanka have never won a Test in South Africa but Sangakkara's 28th century in his 105th Test opened a rare window of opportunity. The former captain took advantage of being dropped by Smith when he had just three runs to his name to make 108 before failing to hit Imran Tahir over Smith at deep mid-on. Chandimal, Sangakkara's latest successor behind the stumps, had fallen to Dale Steyn three balls earlier for 54. Sri Lanka closed on 256 for 7.
The lack of an outstanding challenger to England's lofty standing was further reinforced by events over the first three days in Melbourne where a seesaw opening Test lay in the balance overnight. Australia ended day three 230 runs ahead of India with two second-innings wickets in hand. They too remain a side very much in transition; their position at the MCG owed a great deal to two veterans whose place in the line-up has been widely questioned. Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey bailed out the younger players who have replaced them higher up the order, Ponting (60) scoring his second half-century of the match and putting on 115 with Hussey after Australia had stumbled to 27 for 4. Hussey finished the day on 79 not out, an innings that may have saved his Test career.
Ponting, five months Hussey's senior, came into the game with his future also in grave doubt, but the former captain has no desire to see his 16-year Test career come to an end. "If I feel like I've got support in the dressing room that's all that really matters to me," he said. "I want to do the best I can to get this Australian team back to a higher rank than we are."