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Weighing up the opposition

A thrilling end to the 2nd (and last) Test between South Africa and Australia finally went the way of the visiting team which meant that the spoils were shared with one win apiece in this truncated Series.
When a five day match fluctuates from day to day and comes to a last hour climax, it is a moment for connoisseurs of the game to savour. Suddenly every Captaincy decision is a matter for clinical analysis. Every ball has major significance. Umpiring decisions are made under extreme pressures and there tend be unforeseeable circumstances like sudden injury on top of huge slices of luck and misfortune in equal measure.
The fairy tale element in this case was provided by the 18 year old Australian fast bowler Cummins, who first bowled his team into a possible winning position and then had the nerve to hang on long enough at the crease to hit the winning run.
It was a thrill a minute, no question, but ticking away in the back of my mind was the process of measuring the quality of the South African side with next summer's home Test Series in mind.
On the face of it England should have little to fear, having outplayed Australia convincingly, home and away and watching the South Africans signally failing to do the same.
The England batting is currently more consistent, the bowling more capable of sustaining pressure backed up, as it is, by high quality close catching. In the spin department, Swann is way ahead of any South African and lastly England's lower order batting strength is something to be envied in any team anywhere in the world.
Looking at key individuals South Africa has unearthed an excellent new ball bowler in Philander, which makes me wonder how it took them so long. He was consistently troubling all the Australians - but this was just as well in the light of a very lacklustre performance by Steyn on that crucial last day in Johannesburg. I was shocked to see the number one ranked bowler in the world unable to bowl a consistent line for most of a day when his Captain would have been relying on him above all the rest.
It was a pleasant surprise to see a leg-spinner in a South African side and Tahir with a penchant for bowling googlies galore, certainly brought variety and plenty of intensity to the role. Gone are the days when you could discount any but the very best and experienced back of the hand bowlers in English conditions because our pitches tend to be harder now than of yore. He deserves his place but acclimatising will still be a tough test.
With Smith, Amla and Kallis there is no lack of quality in their batting and there will be times when they stretch Strauss's resources to the limit.
All this conjecture is however clouded by the fact that what should be billed as a battle for world supremacy will be played over three Tests. not five when a bit of luck here or there, with the pitch or the weather, can play too great a part in the outcome. Nevertheless they are matches to look forward to with eager anticipation.
On a slightly downbeat note to finish, I was less sanguine than some of the commentators during the exciting finale in Joburg, when they proclaimed that Test cricket was assured of a healthy future because of a couple of unusually exciting hours of play. I doubt that the Television moguls who will ultimately make the key decisions will see events in quite the same way – especially when so much of what they currently show us is so poorly attended.