Tale of two captains puts Australia on top

Ricky Ponting's men go into final Test having turned the tables on South Africans
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The Independent Online

Starting today, Cape Town is staging the last of the six Tests played this winter between two competitive and well-matched sides. At present the scoreline stands at 3-2 in favour of Ricky Ponting's outfit, a fair refection of the play. Both teams have performed better away from home because both were on top of themselves and therefore their games in these periods. It has been an illuminating campaign, and a far cry from the dreary run-feasts staged on docile pitches elsewhere.

Much has changed in these few weeks of hard cricket. Turn the clock back to 2 January and the Sydney Cricket Ground Test match. Already South Africa had secured two of the game's most stunning victories to take a 2-0 lead. In some respects the margin was misleading because Australia had dominated the early days of both matches only to be thwarted. The South Africa captain, Graeme Smith, looked to have the Midas touch and his counterpart seemed about as light-hearted as Hamlet.

How quickly things can change in sport. Now Australia have the 2-0 advantage and the South Africans have been forced to drop struggling players, namely Morne Morkel and Neil McKenzie. They have been replaced by Albie Morkel, a bustling brotherly seamer, and Imraan Khan, an adroit left-handed opener from the same stable as Hashim Amla; the Indian communities around Durban. Imraan has scored hundreds in each of his last four domestic matches and deserves his chance.

Smith's injury – he sustained a fracture to his right hand during the second Test – and Ponting's recovery have been the crucial factors in this reversal of fortunes. Smith's broken digit was vital to his team's defeat in Sydney. In a stroke it took away a prolific opening batsman and the team's main driving force. Even then South Africa only lost with a few balls to spare. Since his return he has not been as commanding a figure. Meanwhile his team lost its intensity. Now he is injured again.

Belatedly restored, Ashwell Prince had been persuaded to open the innings whereupon he refused to captain the side, pointing out that the batting order had been taken out of his hands. Jacques Kallis will wear the crown of thorns. Aggrieved, Prince promptly scored 254 as a provincial opener, clobbering eight sixes along the way.

He can take solace from the fact that four of the top six batsmen are non-whites. Had Lonwabo Tsotsobe been fit to bowl his left-armers, the majority of the team would have dark skins. It is a mighty achievement.

Had their opponents stayed the same, South Africa might have survived their shortcomings. But the Australians have played with the gusto missing in the home series. Ponting was been rejuvenated. He tends to express the mood in his camp, not define it. Given the chance to lead a bunch of likely lads, he has responded with an alert performance.

Suggestions that the results might have been different had Smith held his counterpart with Australia staggering at 67 for 3 on an awkward first day of the series in Johannesburg ignore the fact that the hosts were not good enough to create further opportunities. Crucial moments are seldom anything of the sort. It was only one ball in a match designed to contain 2,700.

South Africa are not suddenly a bad side. However, they now know the price champions pay to retain their position. Cape Town offers them a chance to restore confidence. Meanwhile, Australia can win 3-0. By no means as imposing as the powerhouses of recent memory, Ponting's side is nevertheless hungry and fearless. Cape Town has been baking and the visitors might well introduce Bryce McGain, their 36-year-old leg-spinner. Though a dead rubber, it ought to be an interesting few days.