England ready for lip-smacking shoot-out
Even by England's recent rollercoaster-ride performances, it's an edge-of-seat scenario.
One match to decide the series, on a pitch that rules out a draw, in the most antagonistic stadium in the country; green grass on the track, thunderstorms overhead and a wounded, hostile opposition ready to throw caution to the clouds.
Win, and England will have secured successive series victories over their two biggest cricketing rivals. Lose, and the critical carpers who say they have only been lucky last-wicket stands away from double defeat will be shouting all the louder.
First to the Wanderers pitch.
Forget the sizzling sun of Cape Town and the coast. Johannesburg saw a quarter as much rain again in December as it normally would, and it's only got wetter since then (13 days into January, the city has already received as much rain as it would normally expect in the entire month). At Wednesday lunchtime, prior to its final preparation by groundsman Chris Scott, the pitch looked like a khaki and emerald patchwork quilt - hard and dry in places, extravagantly grassed in others.
This specific strip was last used for the Champions Trophy last September, and then it gave substantial assistance to the quick bowlers - not least England's trio of James Anderson, Graham Onions and Stuart Broad in the win over Sri Lanka. Wanderers tracks historically produce results too; you have to go back 10 years to find the last Test draw there, and even then the three days lost to bad weather were a major factor.
"The bowlers have got something to work with," says Scott. "There's a bit more grass on the pitch, and over five days - if it lasts that long - the pitch will deteriorate."
South Africa coach Mickey Arthur had asked Scott to leave it green and grassy, but there will be few complaints from England - not only because they were similarly specific in requesting a crumbling turner from the Oval's Bill Gordon for the final Ashes Test of last summer, but also because such conditions may arguably suit their attack even more than the hosts.
This is the ground where, four years ago, Matthew Hoggard took 12 wickets in the match (including 7-61 in the second innings) to bowl England to a series-defining victory. With the humidity expected to be high again, Anderson and Onions in particular will be licking lips and polishing cherries with relish.
Hoggard cleans up Jacques Rudolph at the Wanderers in 2005
With the notable exception of the outstanding Dale Steyn (24 wickets at 22 in his five Tests in Jo'burg) and possibly debutant Wayne Parnell, the South African attack would probably prefer a dry, bouncy track to a sultry swinger. In addition, Paul Harris has taken just four Test scalps in his two Tests at the Wanderers, Jacques Kallis 28 wickets in 21 innings. "We've got to back our bowlers to be better than theirs," says Andrew Strauss.
Scott is also remarkably candid: "It's my opinion that England's seam attack has been that bit better than South Africa's," he told BBC Sport on Wednesday. "They can enjoy the wicket as well."
What of tactics? Arthur, stung by criticism that he and Smith have been too conservative in the series thus far, has promised to gamble - "We've got to go for it, we don't have an option." Strauss, for his part, has also insisted that his side will go for the win.
To bat first or insert the opposition? Of the 20 Tests played at the Wanderers since South Africa were readmitted to Test cricket in 1992, nine have been won by the team that batted first, six by the team batting last. At the same time, fourth innings totals at the ground over the same period have not dropped as dramatically from the first innings totals as at most Test areas - by an average of just seven runs per wicket.
Neither may the toss be decisive, if the precedents in the series thus far are to be believed. Strauss called correctly in Cape Town, stuck South Africa in and almost lost the match; Smith got the call right in Durban, decided to bat and ended up being thumped by an innings.
Despite the expected bowlers' paradise, patient batting may be equally critical. There may not be a repeat of Mike Atherton's stalwart 11-hour 185 not out from 1995, but as essential to England's victory five years ago as Hoggard's haul was Strauss's first innings 147 and Marcus Trescothick's brilliant 180 in the second.
"Even though you look for a grassy wicket it won't be a major green mamba out there," believes Arthur. "It will allow the batters to get stuck in."
Which team are better equipped to handle the unique pressures of this match?
England have the experience of the Oval shoot-out, and are likely to have the highly unusual luxury of naming the same 11 for the entire series. South Africa, by contrast, have been forced by injury to hand Parnell his bow. For a side who a year ago had aspirations to dominate world cricket, a second successive Test series defeat on home soil would hit hard; for England, who a year ago had just sacked both captain and coach on the same day and were about to be bowled out for 51 in Jamaica, the situation feels like a wonderful opportunity rather than a must-win millstone.
After the startling success of Durban and extraordinary escape in Cape Town, England look like a team on the up, if far from invincible. South Africa, having been denied two wins by the doughtiness of England's number 11 batsman, appear the side seeking fresh momentum.
What of historical precedent? South Africa have won eight and lost seven of their Tests at the Wanderers since 1992, England won two and lost two. More intriguingly, England have followed each of their last three final-pair escapes (Centurion, Cardiff, Old Trafford '98) with wins in the very next match.
Those dramatic draws in the past year, allied to consistency of selection, have created a team spirit in the England camp stronger than anything seen since the Ashes series of 2005. It may not enough by itself to seal the series, but in conjunction with the burgeoning success of the Strauss-Flower captain-coach bond, it gives the tourists a remarkable resilience.
The prize at stake is a big one. Since the triumph in South Africa five years ago, the only overseas series England have won came against New Zealand - and even then, only just.
To beat them on home soil now, having just won back the Ashes, would put Strauss's team in an enviable position as the prospect of Australia away looms large on the horizon.