A match-up between the No 2 and No 3 ranked sides in Test cricket was always going to be a fascinating encounter and at the halfway mark it can be said that the contest between Australia and South Africa has lived upto the hype created on the eve of the four-match series. Of course while the two Tests witnessed scenes of unacceptable behavior which has sullied the spectacle somewhat if one talks only about the cricket it has been truly engrossing and of a very high quality. But that was only to be expected because the two sides have in their ranks some of the best cricketers in the contemporary game. And what has whetted the appetite of the true cricket lover is the fact that the teams are level at one match each.

Ever since they resumed cricketing ties after South Africa’s isolation ended in the early 90s encounters between the two sides have always been intensely fought and very close contests have been the order of the day. Unfortunately some of the Tests have left bitter memories - despite the excellence of the cricket - due to the boorish behavior of the players. It is safe to say however that never before have the unsavoury incidents been so serious as in the ongoing series. The fact that Kagiso Rabada has received a two Test suspension symbolizes the abysmal behaviour of players on both sides. Several players have received punishments of varying degrees by the match referee Jeff Crowe and this certainly has been a poor advertisement for Test cricket. One can only hope the longish break before the third Test starts on March 22 will help calm frayed tempers and the remaining matches will be gone through with the players being on their best behavior.

At least a start has been made in the right direction with Rabada himself admitting that ''this has got to stop because I am letting the team down.’’ If one learns from one’s mistakes and is ready to admit that he was wrong then the first step towards rectifying them has been taken. As Crowe put it ''I take no pleasure in seeing a player suspended particularly a young player of Rabada’s talent but he has breached the ICC Code of Conduct on a number of occasions.’’

From a cricketing viewpoint it is a pity that Rabada will not be seen in action for two Tests for he has virtually been the man of the series so far. A precocious talent his career figures say it all – 135 wickets in 28 Tests at an average of 21.4 and a strike rate of 38.9. In the two Tests so far he has taken 15 wickets at 16.8 apiece. But even the impressive figures do not do justice to the 22-year-old’s bowling skills. He has pace, hostility, accuracy, movement and with his match haul of eleven wickets in the second Test he was clearly the star of a notable victory. If he can exercise some control over his outbursts on the field he is destined to join the pantheon of all time great fast bowlers.

The series was always expected to be a contest between the fast bowlers on both sides and that is what it has been so far with Rabada, Mornie Morkel, Vernon Philander and Lungi Ngidi for South Africa and Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood for Australia vying for honours though Keshav Maharaj and Nathan Lyon have had their moments. The former in fact exceeded expectations in playing a leading role in the victory in the first Test with a match haul of nine wickets.

The ball has held sway so far in the series symbolized by the fact that there has been no century scored by an Australian batsmen – Mitch Marsh’s 96 is the highest - though AB de Villiers and Aiden Markram have notched up one each for South Africa. The inability of Steve Smith to come anywhere near the lofty status he enjoys as the leading batsman in Test cricket is the chief reason why South Africa go into the third Test with the series level. The South African bowlers have tied up the Australian captain by some incisive bowling and if the visitors are to win the series it is clear that Smith’s current batting figures will have to improve. Of course except for David Warner who has got two half centuries none of the other batsmen too have been among the runs – again a tribute to the South African bowlers.

To be fair even the Australian bowlers have been able to keep the formidable South African batting on a leash. AB’s hundred was superlative even by his high standards while Markram was rewarded for his patience but the rest of the batting has made little headway against the Aussie bowling.

The remaining two Tests promise to be as engaging as the first two and it will need a brave man to predict the outcome. One only hopes that there will not be any more incidents of bad behavior to play spoilsport.