South Africa's recovery slow and painful as youth is given a chance

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South Africa caught a faint sniff of victory on only the second day of the Third Test against Australia in Durban yesterday. Their own batting wilted in the face of Shane Warne, but Australia's great form batsmen suffered from a collective failure in their second innings. A first-innings lead of 148 was extended to 307 at the close; there are two wickets in hand and one of them is Steve Waugh's.

South Africa's recovery from the humiliation of the second-worst defeat in Test history had begun earlier last week in Cape Town and it continued on Friday when Australia were dismissed for a relatively modest 315. But yesterday the recovery stalled. Warne got two wickets with full tosses to take 4 for 33. Brett Lee bowled fast and wild and his figures of 4 for 82 came courtesy of superb catches by Matthew Hayden in the gully and Damien Martyn at point. But when they batted again, both scored precisely nothing.

Ricky Ponting was out hooking; Adam Gilchrist fencing; Justin Langer flashing. Mark Waugh's 30 may have been his last Test innings. Jacques Kallis gouged out the middle order with a spell of 3 for 9. But Steve Waugh got stuck in on a wicket that was challenging but by no means unplayable. The lead may be big enough, but they will have to work for a sixth win on the trot against South Africa.

Apart from a thick cluster of beer drinkers under the umbrellas at Castle Corner, spectators stayed away. "The poor crowd is a consequence of defeat," says Rob Kurz, vice-president of the United Cricket Board of South Africa. "We like winning teams." South Africans expect their teams to win against the best. The six-match series this winter was confidently expected to decide the best team in the world, as if it were the climactic clash of the superpowers. Yet it caused a crisis of expectations in South African cricket that may not be resolved for some time.

This disastrous home and away series finally exposed the results of Hansie Cronje's enforced departure from Test cricket. There was no time to prepare the succession. Shaun Pollock's efforts with bat and ball have been superb, but he had not learned to motivate a fast-changing side. Of Cronje's team, Jonty Rhodes quit; Daryll Cullinan marches to a different drum and voluntarily exited the national team; Allan Donald's body finally gave up; Lance Klusener is not trusted to perform. It was the engine room of South African cricket and the power was cut further when Pollock strained an intercostal muscle in his side and missed all three Tests on the South African leg.

For Kurz a dynastic problem is exaggerated by a failure of perception. "The public took it for granted that the winning team would carry on. I don't think they were aware we were in transition," he says.

The XIs for Cape Town and Durban contained the highest proportion of non-whites ever to play for South Africa: three coloured (Herschelle Gibbs, Paul Adams, Ashwell Prince) and one African (Makhaya Ntini). Alongside talented young whites (Graeme Smith, Neil McKenzie) they gave a dejected public some pride.

The Cape Town fightback to contain Australia's winning margin to four wickets was due to a generation change, says Kurz: "They were young people playing for a bun and a coke." Smith, who scored 68 in the second innings, attributed the revival to "energy, enthusiasm and ignorance." No one gave them a chance of winning and they were right, but compared to a defeat by an innings and 360 runs in Johannesburg in the First Test, it was a glorious comeback.

But the debate is not just about cricket. It's about race. The keyword in the vocabulary of South African cricket is transformation. This means changing an all-white game into one for all South Africans. The debate brings out idealism and bile in equal quantities but this is a country that brings out the best and the worst in people. An anonymous media review for an independent body with an Or wellian title – Transformation Monitoring Committee – believes the problem is underlying, entrenched in ideolog- ical bias which quickly finds fault with black and coloured players while tolerating failure by whites – especially in the case of former Test players on television. The evid-ence is not overwhelming but there is something in it.

The quota system simply states that South Africa will not field an all-white team. This side at Durban clearly satisfies that, but President Thabo Mbeki said on 8 March that teams should be able to draw players from 100 per cent of the population rather than 30 per cent. "For two or three years let's not mind losing international competitions because we are bringing our people into our teams," he said.

It is a challenging concept in international sport: losing as a means to an end. But the loss of the engine room from the old Cronje teams means that whatever its racial compositions, spectators may have to become accustomed to watching a winning team that has lost the winning habit.