JOHANNESBURG: It is common enough for a captain to stand down during a Test series - once his team have lost. It was very rare, and gracious, when Hashim Amla resigned with this series against England still alive, and handed over to AB de Villiers because he thought the side would fare better.
South Africa are never going to be more dangerous in this series than in the next 48 hours. The best man to be their captain is now in charge, and although de Villiers has never led in a first-class match, that is irrelevant compared to his captaincy of South Africa in 76 one-day internationals - the role so inspirational for his batting that he has averaged 69, the equivalent of 100 in Tests.
South Africa have committed to the strategy of a four-man pace attack on a grassy pitch, which they perhaps should have done in Cape Town. Their strength lies in their tall, fast bowling unit, and at last they are playing to it, even if that should prove not to be enough to win the third Test and level the series.
Amla is a scholar by nature - when he finishes his study of batting he could proceed to religious texts - who dives at mid-off because he has to. De Villiers dives because he wants to, and there is no doubt which captain a young team - five of this South African side have played fewer than 10 Tests - will respond to more readily.
South Africa were galvanised on the fifth morning in Cape Town after De Villiers addressed them in the huddle. Hitherto short of confidence, they bounced out and scared England by taking six quick wickets.
With every justification De Villiers said: "I genuinely believe there was a momentum shift in the last Test match. I've played enough series in the past to know that a little momentum shift like that doesn't just happen, it is a big thing in a big series like this.
"It is up to us to make sure we maintain that kind of momentum into the third Test now and I think there is a nice energy in the team, not that there wasn't before. I thought Hash led the team extremely well. There is maybe more of a fresh vibe. I'm more of an energetic guy, and hopefully that will be useful in the next two Test matches."
De Villiers suggested that one of his four fast bowlers would be a debutant. "I'm specifically talking about a guy called Hardus Viljoen, who excites me quite a lot. He bowls with very big pace and good control and he's taken 10 wickets in a row in the two games before his last for his franchise." Both games were at the Wanderers, too. Viljoen is hefty, with an open?chested action that can buckle under pressure or make the ball jag back in to right-handers. If he plays instead of Kyle Abbott, or even if he does not, very few Test attacks have been taller than this one - not even West Indies in their prime.
It will be extremely tough on Gary Ballance if a sore throat, or more of the gastric trouble that has been ailing the England squad, prevents Alex Hales playing his third Test: Hales had a net but was kept isolated from the rest of the team. Whether Ballance bats at three or five, he will be ill-prepared after a sole innings of 25 a month ago. But what De Villiers does after this Test series is even more significant than what he does at the Wanderers and Centurion. If he retires from Test cricket aged 31, straight after fulfilling his almost?lifelong dream of captaining South Africa's Test team, something is seriously wrong. Yet rectifiable.
If Australia, England and India - the Big Three in terms of money, the Only Three in power - could bear to take their noses out of the ICC trough, they could incentivise the best players from other countries to keep playing Test cricket by offering them a salary of a million dollars a year, paid directly.
De Villiers would then keep playing the IPL but could resist the temptation of other domestic T20 tournaments such as Australia's
Big Bash, which clashes with the height of the South African season. In addition, the International Cricket Council announced a context for Test cricket long ago: a Test Championship to be staged in England in 2013 and 2017, an initiative well worth trying. The top four countries could have played a Test against each other
in the space of a month; the top team would have been worthy world champions.
There was an understandable concern, for financial reasons, that India might not make the top four qualifiers, but so what? And India would qualify for 2017 if the cut-off date were now.
But the Only Three abandoned the Test Championship in favour of another 50-over tournament, the Champions Trophy, again to be staged in England, as if we needed another white-ball tournament. This is what happens when international cricket is ruled by people who have never played it.
By Scyld Berry