WHEN Nathan Lyon boarded a flight to Colombo via Singapore in August last year he was a virtual nobody.
A little over 18 months since that foray into international cricket, and with a neat 50 Test wickets now in his collection, he can announce himself as a genuine match-winner for Australia on his home track today.
The Adelaide Oval strip is breaking up just as Lyon, its former groundskeeping assistant, suspected it would in this second Test of wild contrasts.
The picture of Australia, via Michael Clarke, David Warner and Michael Hussey, hacking the South Africa attack apart on days one and two could not have been further removed from what AB de Villiers and Faf du Plessis were up to yesterday afternoon.
Given a formidable 430 victory target, the Proteas will resume on the final day skating on thin ice at 4-77 and only Jacques Kallis, carrying a hamstring injury, to come before the tail.
At stumps they were ambling along at a pace that would hold up a snail. They prodded or padded up to everything directed at them as Clarke, saving his bullets for today, took the ball himself and handed it to other part-timers Rob Quiney, David Warner and even the extremely occasional Ricky Ponting.
De Villiers (12 from 101 balls) and du Plessis (19 from 74) put on 32 in 29 overs together and will set out to continue their obduracy as long as they can.
They will surely be met with more stiff challenges than that thrown their way in their two-hour stand of stubbornness. And that is where Lyon comes in.
Yesterday, at 25 and five days, he became the youngest off-spinner to acquire a half-century of Test scalps for Australia and, on a strip increasingly suiting him, will fancy himself today.
He was pilloried for poor domestic form in the lead-up to this series, but he improved in Brisbane and, via his stock off-break rather than his novelty alternative ball, he appears more comfortable by the day.
"He's copped a little bit of pressure here and there and he probably didn't start as well as he would have liked to in Shield cricket," Australian fast bowler Peter Siddle said.
"But I think the first two Tests he's shown how valuable he is to the side, and this Test especially. He knows there is going to be a lot of work again tomorrow, and I think he played that role well this afternoon.
"He stuck to his guns and he's going to have to hold up that end for most of the rest of this innings."
Lyon was central yesterday, prompting Hashim Amla (17) to edge to Clarke, who fumbled but completed the catch at slip, and then sent Jacques Rudolph (three) on his way for a fourth time in four attempts.
Ashley Mallett predicted that Lyon might do a Daryll Cullinan on the struggling Rudolph and he was right.
It was Ben Hilfenhaus, however, who gave Australia a crucial morale victory early in their bid to finish off South Africa. His removal of Proteas captain and first-innings centurion Graeme Smith, caught for nought by Ponting facing his second ball, was a killer blow to any quixotic hopes South Africa had of winning.
They had all but been quashed anyway in the morning by Hussey (54), Clarke (38) and late-order mischief from James Pattinson, who cannot bowl until next year due to a side strain but said farewell to the summer with 29 not out, giving him a batting average of 71 for the match.
Clarke declared at 8-267, just after poor leg-spinner Imran Tahir racked up the worst match figures in the history of Test cricket.
"Obviously there is going to have to be some sort of support for him because he's had a tough couple of days in Test cricket," Proteas assistant coach Russell Domingo said of a downcast Tahir.
"The players and the management will rally around him and try and make sure that he takes a lot of learning out of these couple of days."
Morne Morkel, meanwhile, has less to learn. His three wickets yesterday gave South Africa's best-performing bowler eight for the Test.