Opinion: The Proteas played like palookas

Australia (288/3) couldn't be sitting any prettier 479 runs ahead with seven wickets in hand as they made a slowly deteriorating pitch resemble the N1 highway that passes the ground.

South Africa began day three on 140/6, some 247 runs behind Australia's big first innings tally. When Robin Peterson was dismissed before the home side could add a single run to their overnight score, the Centurion DJ loudly played the song called 'I need a Miracle' by the aptly named band, 'Third Day'.

Sadly miracles don't come around when you bat like palookas and then bowl and field like clodhoppers. The Proteas conceded a 195-run lead after a sparkling knock from AB de Villiers (91) saved them from what might have been a double-digit first-innings.

Australia (288/3) couldn't be sitting any prettier 479 runs ahead with seven wickets in hand as they made a slowly deteriorating pitch resemble the N1 highway that passes the ground.

There was a lot of Mitchell Johnson hype in the build up to this series and the heavily tattooed, handlebar-mustached fast bowler took 7/68 as he ripped through South Africa's batting order in wrecking ball fashion.

Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander may be the top ranked Test bowlers in world cricket but, at the moment, Johnson is easily the most feared.

Johnson's unorthodox sling action makes his bowling lengths very hard to read and several SA batsmen seemed to capitulate through fear alone as they got trying to evade balls that threatened bodily hard. If the Proteas' batsmen fail to settle against him then it is hard to see them winning a single Test this series.

South Africa would have all but given up believing they could win this match after a one-sided day that resembled the Saint Valentines Day Massacre. Robin Petersen was three-times wided by Umpire Illingworth for negative bowling and a highly unlikely draw is all the home side has to play for.

The Proteas fielded appallingly and dropped a handful of catches and allowed overthrows on a dismal afternoon's display that could not be described as any better than downright sloppy.

One might have expected Michael Clarke to declare after lunch on day four but the brisk rate of well over four runs per over achieved by his batsmen has meant that the visitors could well have a 600-run lead by the end of the first session and he may not even bother waiting till then.

No rain is forecast on the last two days but anything above 600 would surely be absurd at a ground where the highest fourth innings core was 251 runs, and that score was achieved by England on what was effectively a day two pitch – after Hansie Cronje had contrived with Nasser Hussain a double declaration to resuscitate a match that was beset by three full days of rain.

This wicket is better than most served up at Centurion and a cloudy third day prevented the marble-like display of cracks on a length from opening up appreciably but some variable bounce has started to come in to play.

The misbehaving balls seem to stay low instead of rear up off cracks, which is usually the great danger at Centurion. In any event South Africa will have a mammoth task ahead of them as they face the challenge of batting out over 150 overs against Johnson and co.

But that's not to say the Proteas haven't managed similar in recent years. This summer at the Wanderers the side batted out 148 overs against India and a year ago in Adelaide they managed stumps on the fifth day after 136 overs.

In 2008 at Lord's South Africa batted out 167 overs and lost only three wickets. This pitch is probably a little less predictable than those three were but this South African side has managed to achieve the unachievable before.

A capacity crowd is expected tomorrow and Faf du Plessis is one man who has shown he can do it. But my will they wish the name of Mr Jacques Kallis was in the batting line-up.

<b>Nick Sadleir</b>