CAPE TOWN - Australia won the third and final Test against South Africa by 245 runs at Newlands on Wednesday in a nailbiting finish with just 27 balls to spare after a day of epic home resistance.
Ryan Harris bowled Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel with the first and third balls of his 25th over as Australia won the match as well as the series by two Tests to one. Steyn and Vernon Philander (51 not out) came together with 19.5 overs remaining and survived until Harris returned to the attack for a final burst. Michael Clarke's side became the first team to win a series against South Africa since Ricky Ponting's Australians won by the same margin in South Africa in 2008/09.
South Africa will retain their number one position in the official Test rankings, but the defeat could signal the imminent end of an era, with captain Graeme Smith stepping down from international cricket. Smith's retirement, announced after the third day's play, follows the retirement earlier in the season of star all-rounder Jacques Kallis, while long-serving wicketkeeper Mark Boucher was forced to quit through injury in 2012. Australia, on the other hand, continued a resurgence under the leadership of Clarke and coach Darren Lehmann, following their 5-0 Ashes triumph against England earlier in the season.
When South Africa resumed on 71 for four it seemed unlikely they could pull off another great escape to go along with a draw they earned against Australia in Adelaide in 2011/12 and India in Johannesburg earlier this season. But a succession of stubborn partnerships took the match down to the last five overs. AB de Villiers and nightwatchman Kyle Abbott defied Australia's bowlers for just over an hour and a half during an extended morning's play before Abbott, who batted for 116 minutes and faced 89 balls in scoring seven runs, did not play a shot to a ball from James Pattinson which cut back and clipped the top of his off stump.
The home side's hopes seemed to rest with De Villiers and Faf du Plessis, two of the key figures when South Africa fought out a draw from a similar position in Adelaide in November 2012. De Villiers, normally a free-scoring batsman, started his innings after tea on the fourth day. He was dismissed in the fifth over with the second new ball when he edged Harris to wicketkeeper Brad Haddin. He had batted for 326 minutes and faced 228 balls.
It was an effort reminiscent of De Villiers' innings in Adelaide when he batted for more than four hours and faced 220 balls in scoring 33. On that occasion, Du Plessis, making his debut, saved the match with a marathon innings of 110 not out. Du Plessis was again resolute but shortly before tea he was leg before wicket to the first ball of a new spell by part-time leg-spinner Steve Smith, who pitched a ball on a good length on leg stump, turning slightly towards middle, with Du Plessis misjudging the line. Du Plessis sought a review but it confirmed that umpire Kumar Dharmasena had made the right decision. Du Plessis batted for 157 minutes and faced 109 balls in making 47. But the drama was not finished as Philander defied the Australians for 155 minutes and 105 balls.
Australia were on top virtually from the start of the decisive Test, with opening batsman David Warner setting the tone with a rapid century in the first innings which he followed with another hundred in the second innings.
Australia took a first innings lead of 207, with Mitchell Johnson taking four wickets and Ryan Harris three, then rattled up 303 for five declared in their second innings to set South Africa a nominal target of 511.
AUSTRALIA, 1ST INNINGS: 494-7 decl
SOUTH AFRICA, 1ST INNINGS: 287
AUSTRALIA, 2ND INNINGS: 303-5 decl
SOUTH AFRICA, 2ND INNINGS:
A Petersen lbw b Harris 9
G Smith c Doolan b Johnson 3
D Elgar b Johnson 0
H Amla lbw b Pattinson 41
A de Villiers c Haddin b Harris 43
K Abbott b Pattinson 7
F du Plessis lbw b Smith 47
J Duminy c Lyon b Johnson 43
V Philander not out 51
D Steyn b Harris 1
M Morkel b Harris 0
EXTRAS: (b8, lb5, nb5, w2) 20
TOTAL: (134.3 overs) 265
FOW: 1-12, 2-12, 3-15, 4-68, 5-95, 6-136, 7-173, 8-246, 9-265
BOWLING: Harris 24.3-15-32-4, Johnson 34-11-92-3, Pattinson 27-10-62-2, Lyon 22-17-10-0, Watson 9-6-6-0, Smith 13-3-43-1, Clarke 5-2-7-0
UMPIRES: Aleem Dar (PAK), Kumar Dharmasena (SRI)
TV UMPIRE: Richard Illingworth (ENG)
MATCH REFEREE: Roshan Mahanama (SRI)