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It was the hardest-earned win of the seven they’ve taken from their past eight Tests, but Australia’s last-gasp 245-run victory over South Africa in Cape Town gives them a credible claim to being the world’s best team.
While the result won’t dislodge South Africa from atop the ICC rankings, the manner in which it was achieved – with less than five overs remaining on a final day that seemed destined to deliver South Africa another famous, series-saving draw – lends credence to Michael Clarke’s team being top of the Test tree.
Quick Single: Australia move to No.2 in rankings
Fitttingly, it was battle-scarred warhorse Ryan Harris who delivered the win amid stretching shadows and some equally long Australian faces as the home side hung on grimly during a day that laboured for the first two sessions before sparking into life in the final hours.
Harris ripped an in-swinging yorker through the defence of Dale Steyn to break a dogged 75-minute stand between the hobbled fast bowler and Vernon Philander, who himself had been beaten and bruised during his defiant, unbeaten top score of 51.
The Australian quick then pulled the same trick two balls later to topple last man Morne Morkel, sparking riotous celebrations among the Australians who feared their tilt at a long-sought away series win might be stymied at the final hurdle.
Evoking repressed memories of Adelaide, 2012 – the previous occasion grim South African defiance stood firm between Australia and a deserved win – it was AB de Villiers (43 off 228 balls) and Faf du Plessis (47 from 109 balls) who had initially dropped anchor for the Proteas.
But in a tense and occasionally spiteful final session, it was Philander – the man who began the series as the world’s top-ranked Test bowler but did little to live up to that billing with the ball across three Tests - who most pointedly threatened to halt Australia’s charge.
Philander withstood all the Australian bowlers could hurl at him during his resolute 105-ball stay and copped a series of painful blows in an innings not far removed in character, if not quite in volume, to Clarke’s memorable first innings century.
He found a willing, if even less physically able partner in Steyn – a virtual spectator for most of the match after straining his right hamstring on the first morning – to survive with him for more than an hour to save the game.
With a small but fiercely parochial crowd cheering every defensive push, studied leave and dot ball negotiated with increasingly voluble cheers, the wounded pair kept out a dizzying rotation of pace and spin bowlers in a desperate but ultimately unsuccessful bid to claw a draw.
In addition to a painful blow to the ribs when he ducked into a bouncer that didn’t on the wearing fifth day pitch, Philander nursed a sore right hand after being struck by a vicious beamer that slipped from James Pattinson’s hand and zeroed in on the batsman’s chin.
Pattinson immediately apologised, but it added another flashpoint on a day that had seen the umpires speak with Clarke about the way the Australians repeatedly flung the ball into the turf as they sought to summon the required ball conditions to achieve reverse swing.
The most unsightly of those erupted as the game ticked into its final hour with Australia requiring just two wickets, when Philander was adjudged caught at short leg from a searing Mitchell Johnson bouncer but a prolonged and hair’s breadth video review overturned the decision.
Forensic study of slow-motion footage seemingly convinced third umpire Richard Illingworth that – if the ball indeed flicked Philander’s right glove before the ball thumped into his shoulder and lobbed in the air – the offending hand was no longer in contact with the bat handle.
The backflip triggered angry scenes among the Australian players on the field, as they milled around the on-field umpires and Clarke exchanged heated, prolonged words with non-striker Steyn which prompted the intervention of the pair’s teammates as well as the on-field officials.
In some sort of karmic coincidence, it might have been Philander’s instinct to remove the hand damaged from the earlier blow out of harm’s way that spared him his wicket and further taunted the Australians.
The series win was Australia’s first on foreign soil since they triumphed two-nil over the West Indies in the Caribbean in April 2012, and the first away series success against a top-ranked Test nation since their 2-1 victory in South Africa five years ago.
It was also just the fourth Test series defeat the South Africans have suffered at home in the past dozen years, with all but one of those – against Michael Vaughan’s England team in 2004-05 – being inflicted by Australia.
The celebratory moment arrived at 5.48pm under golden, late afternoon sun that was fast disappearing behind Table Mountain, in front of a scattering of spectators who sprawled under the oaks on the eastern grass bank or in the shade of the pavilions and were rewarded for their patience as their local heroes bravely hung on.
To be fair, the pace that de Villiers had set the previous evening – 16 runs from 100 balls faced – and then again when South Africa’s pursuit of a stalemate began again at its funereal speed was hardly going to convince anyone other than those already holding tickets to turn up on a Wednesday.
Certainly when dedicated 24-hour television channels, live blogs and around-the-clock reports of the genuine drama unfolding at the trial of Olympic athlete and alleged murderer Oscar Pistorious was commanding and holding the nation’s interest.
Those waving the Australian flag were beginning to shift anxiously in their seats, fearing a reprise of South Africa’s famously defiant draw in Adelaide 18 months earlier when de Villiers and nightwatchman Kyle Abbott survived the first hour and half without too many nervous moments.
A couple of Steve Smith’s speculative leg breaks ripped past an outside edge.
Clarke rolled his arm over and thought he’d managed what the frontline bowlers could not when he hit de Villiers in front without the world’s best batsman offering a shot, but the ball was rightly judged to have pitched outside leg stump.
And predictably, it was Johnson who came closest when a couple of rifling short balls were instinctively fended off the batsman’s body, but fell frustratingly short or wide of the clustered, poised and waiting, like predators circling a a savannah waterhole.
But it was Pattinson who, after a barren 94 minutes that contained as few talking points as it did runs and wickets, altered the status quo when Abbott opted to leave the first ball of the Australian’s new spell without accounting for the reverse swing that flattened his off stump.
Abbott had batted almost two hours for his seven runs, and had sent a clear message to his better-credentialled batting teammates that survival was far from impossible on a pitch that continued to hold together far more effectively than South Africa’s top order.
Then, shortly after lunch and with the new, as-yet-unscuffed ball barely eight overs old, Harris induced a false shot from de Villiers who propped forward to a ball that swung sufficiently to catch an edge.
His five-and-a-half hour occupation was the least productive Test match innings of 200-balls plus since the same batsman laboured for 220 balls to score 33 against the same opponent in Adelaide 18 months ago.
Of course, the South African batsman who proved even more obdurate in that infamous match was du Plessis, who chiselled an unbeaten 110 from 376 balls in that infamous draw and condemned a couple of Australian bowlers to stints in the rehab ward in the process.
The batsman, who is seen as the only legitimate rival to de Villiers to inherit the captaincy vacated by Graeme Smith at game’s end, had set himself to repeat that dose despite the relentless verbal attacks levelled at him by the fielding team.
Clearly, the Australians had neither forgotten nor forgiven du Plessis’ comparison of several of them to “a pack of wild dogs” when he ill-advisedly picked up the ball while batting in South Africa’s first innings on Monday.
But within sight of tea, and having batted for just over two and half hours, du Plessis missed a perfectly flighted legspinner from Steve Smith, perhaps caught unawares by the fact Smith – who had already unveiled his full repertoire of full bungers and long hops – landed one with the first ball of his spell.
He immediately called for the decision to be reviewed, but when all three criteria showed it would have hit middle and leg he was sent on his way with a chorus of Australian howls and dog calls ringing in his ears.