Shortly after the first day’s halfway point was reached, Dale Steyn - the world’s best bowler according to those rather prescriptive ICC rankings – retrieved his canvas hat from umpire Aleem Dar and took it, accompanied by a slight limp, back to South Africa’s dressing room.
It was at that moment the third and final Test, the one that will provide a more definitive assessment of who’s got the world’s best Test team, dramatically and perhaps indelibly changed character.
Until that point, it’s not unkind to suggest the top-ranked Test attack was looking about as flat as the top of Table Mountain that occasionally revealed itself beneath cloud that swirled and rolled like sublimating dry ice in an 80s music video as a stiff northerly blustered through Newlands. QUICK SINGLE: Clarke survives Morkel short ball attack
Steyn was but a shadow of the bowler who decided the previous Test at Port Elizabeth with a devastatingly precise spell of fast bowling, and bled 18 runs from his opening two overs after which he was promptly replaced by Morne Morkel.
It was a telling, early indication all was not well.
For although he came back to play a hand in both Australian wickets to fall in the day’s opening half, Steyn’s afternoon and possibly his match ended just one delivery into his 11th over when he overstretched his right hamstring strain and Morkel was called upon to bowl the remaining five.
Suddenly, a bowler down with Australia in control at 2-158 and David Warner further goading the locals by piling a century atop his inflammatory remarks, Morkel decided that was time to stand tall.
Even for a bloke who already stands around 200cm.
The imposing fast bowler duly trained his sniper’s gaze on Australian captain Michael Clarke, and for the next half hour the pair engaged in a two-person war that will surely come to define this series and evoked memories of the pre-protective gear era when cricket was a genuinely dangerous game.
Of the 29 legitimate deliveries Morkel sent down in that spell – most of which zipped through in excess of 145km/h and either reared or skidded depending on which section of the two-paced pitch they struck – Clarke faced 20 of them.
A bulk of those were delivered from around the wicket and clearly aimed at the skipper’s ribs, his shoulder or his head, as catching fielders stationed strategically at short leg and at leg slip awaited any self-preservatory fends that might catch the bat or glove rather than the person. QUICK SINGLE: Day one highlights
Clarke, for his part, also understood this was a stoush upon which the match, and therefore the series might ultimately turn.
If he was able to ride out Hurricane Morne, South Africa would be left to rely on one other front-line seamer (Vernon Philander, who found nothing in the conditions) a largely ineffectual all-rounder playing just his second Test (Kyle Abbott) and a pair of part-time spinners (JP Duminy and Dean Elgar).
So the captain gritted his teeth, and dug in.
As did Morkel did. Ball after ball. Over upon over.
Steyn had barely disappeared into the pavilion when the first blow landed, a rising ball angled so unerringly up and into Clarke’s rib cage that the ball nestled under between the batsman’s left forearm and his side and took a second to for him to work out where it had gone and to shake it loose.
Four balls later Morkel cracked his quarry flush on that same forearm, near Clarke’s left elbow, raising fears he had inflicted the very injury the skipper had so provocatively warned England’s James Anderson to expect during the volatile Ashes opener in Brisbane a few months earlier.
At the end of that over, Australia’s physiotherapist Alex Kountouris made the first of what were to become regular dashes to the centre clutching his bum bag of salves and sprays, none of which could offer any lasting respite from what Clarke knew was coming next. QUICK SINGLE: Day one at a glance
Certainly there was no evidence these consultations included a failsafe way of successfully countering the body barrage.
The most alarming blow was the one launched at around 147km/h that clocked Clarke on the side of his head as he tried to jerk it out of the ball’s path at the final split second, meaning it crashed into the right side of his lower jaw and sent him to the canvas.
The sight of the Australian captain tossing away his bat, taking a few unsteady steps towards point and then slumping to his knees as Kountouris made another mercy dash triggered memories of the sort of carnage the feared battery of West Indian fast bowlers would regularly inflict in decades past.
Or of Harold Larwood invoking England’s infamous leg theory.
Taking on the role of a latter day Bill Woodfull, albeit via social media from another continent rather than the team’s viewing room, Clarke’s wife Kyly took to Twitter to make her views known.
“I guess there's cricket then there's Morne Morkel style cricket,” she tweeted, followed by a string of self-explanatory hashtags - #brutal #understatement #attack #painful #courageous
Her spouse’s jaw was prodded and checked, words of encouragement administered and the cruelly compelling war resumed when Morkel fired his next delivery in almost the precise same spot, where it struck the still shaken Clarke once more on the arm from where it ricocheted to his glove.
That it landed then a sufficiently safe distance from both the opportunistic catcher at short leg as well as Clarke’s unprotected wicket could be attributed purely to fortune, as the by-now fully roused crowd bayed its approval.
But it was the final ball of that Morkel over that was the best, fizzing as it did past Clarke’s nose as he was squared up by the angle and beaten by the speed that was recorded as 148km/h.
And yet the fact that Clarke was somehow able to drop his hands thus withdrawing his bat in what little time existed to entertain conscious thought signalled that, perhaps at last, the equilibrium of the battle had begun to swing.
Even though the crowd further roared their approval when Warner took a single from the first ball of Morkel’s next over and thus delivered his captain squarely back to the front line, Clarke suddenly exuded a slightly less fallible presence.
He tugged one short delivery off his hip for a single as Morkel – paying for his exertions and with his adrenaline supply beginning to dissipate – dropped those vital few km/h that separate unplayable from simply unpleasant.
The end, at least for the time being, was in sight as the South African retreated from the attack and Clarke slowly rediscovered his composure and timing against lesser combatants.
In bald numeric terms, Morkel’s 4.5 over spell yielded figures of 0-14.
Clarke, throughout the torment and physical hurt, had advanced his score by three runs, one fewer than those made by the physio made from the sidelines.
When Morkel with the second new ball at day’s end, Clarke landed a couple of quick jabs that brought him boundaries before the bowler summoned one final effort for the day and struck the captain a parting blow – this time on the right hand. QUICK SINGLE: Warner's Newlands ton
Like the final dart embedded in a hunted animal, this one looked to have finished off his prey, as Clarke painfully removed his glove to reveal a bloodied thumb from which the nail appeared to be all but gone.
But the captain had shown his mettle and again soldiered on until stumps, taking his score to an heroic, unbeaten 92 in the process.
In doing so, he quadrupled his previous best score from 11 previous Test innings.Then, with the wind abating the pitch and the other South African bowlers further flattened, he returned unconquered to the Australian dressing room where he applied five ice packs to even more sore spots, and reflected on the knowledge his team had established the tighter grip on the series decider.