To lose to India in India is one thing: to be beaten by the South Africans at home is quite another for Australia. That the visitors – for whom A B de Villiers and the debutant J P Duminy shone – chased 414 to win, the second-highest successful run chase in Test history, further suggests that a long and glorious era of Baggy Green domination is drawing to a rapid close.
The facts will make sobering reading for Ricky Ponting, the Australian captain, as he reflects on a result that looked if not impossible at least very improbable when South Africa went out to bat in their second innings. The Australians had not lost the first Test of a home series since 1988, when the West Indies won in Brisbane, and have dominated South Africa since their return to the international fold.
Much of the damage had been done on the fourth day, but there was still plenty for the Proteas, who began the day needing 187 with seven wickets in hand, to do yesterday. Any hopes Australia had, however, were soon dashed as Jacques Kallis and De Villiers scored with ease against an Australian attack blunted by a pitch offering very little.
Kallis lived dangerously and offered a few chances after Australia took the new ball 16 overs into the morning. De Villiers, meanwhile, was crafting a careful, unbeaten 106, taking a back seat to Kallis in the morning session as the pair posted a 124-run fourth-wicket partnership.
Kallis became Mitchell Johnson's third wicket of the innings and his 11th for the match when he was caught by Mike Hussey with a sharp catch at point, giving the Australians hope of a sensational victory as the Proteas still had 111 runs to make.
But Duminy showed maturity beyond his years, setting aside a first-innings failure as he resisted a determined Johnson during the early stages of his knock and combined with De Villiers for a 111-run partnership that took the Proteas to a six-wicket victory.
With three runs needed to win, Duminy stroked Johnson through the covers, the batsmen scuttling through for three runs as Andrew Symonds chased it down, giving the debutant an unbeaten and very memorable 50.
Aside from Johnson, Australia's attack lacked bite. Brett Lee (1 for 73) appeared dangerous on the fourth day but lowered his colours on Sunday and was expensive, while Jason Krejza and Peter Siddle were wicketless at the expense of 102 and 84 runs respectively. In contrast, Johnson's 8 for 61 followed by 3 for 98 in the second innings gave the 27-year-old match figures of 11 for 159, the first 10-wicket haul of his career.
The result had looked particularly unlikely after the second day, when Johnson produced a sensational spell to dismiss five South African wickets for two runs, seeing the Proteas slump from a comfortable 234 for 3 in their first innings to all out for 281. Some tight bowling and inspired fielding on the third day saw the home side fall to 162 for 7, but a sparkling 94 from Brad Haddin ensured South Africa were set a stiff target.
The Proteas opener Neil McKenzie fell for 10 after an hour of intense bowling from Brett Lee and Johnson after lunch on day four, but the South Africa captain, Graeme Smith, laid aside the ghosts of past failures against Australia to score his maiden ton against the home side, a bullish 108.
The result gives the Proteas a good chance to win their first Test series against Australia since their return to world cricket in 1992 and of becoming the first side since the West Indies in 1992-93 to defeat the Aussies at home. And if they win the two remaining Tests in this series – in Melbourne and Sydney – they can take Australia's place at the top of the International Cricket Council's official world rankings.
Hot pursuit: Top five run chases
*418-7 West Indies v Australia
(Antigua, May 2003)
*414-4 South Africa v Australia
(Perth, December 2008)
*406-4 India v West Indies
(Trinidad, April 1976)
*404-3 Australia v England
(Headingley, July 1948)
*387-4 India v England
(Chennai, December 2008)
Fourth and final days; Australia won toss
Australia – First Innings 375 (S M Katich 83, M J Clarke 62, A Symonds 57).
South Africa – First Innings 281 (A B de Villiers 63, J H Kallis 63; M G Johnson 8-61).
Australia – Second Innings
(Friday: 228 for 7)
†B J Haddin st Boucher b Harris 94
J J Krejza c De Villiers b Kallis 32
M G Johnson c Kallis b M Morkel 21
P M Siddle not out 4
Extras (b4 lb7 w2 nb7) 20
Total (97 overs) 319
Fall (cont): 8-241 9-278.
Bowling: Steyn 19-3-81-2; Ntini 21-2-76-1; Harris 27-3-85-3; Kallis 14-4-24-3; M Morkel 16-4-42-1.
South Africa – Second Innings
(Overnight: 227 for 3)
*G C Smith lbw b Johnson 108
N D McKenzie c Haddin b Johnson 10
H M Amla c Haddin b Lee 53
J H Kallis c Hussey b Johnson 57
A B de Villiers not out 106
J P Duminy not out 50
Extras (b13 lb9 w2 nb6) 30
Total (for 4, 119.2 overs) 414
Fall: 1-19 2-172 3-179 4-303.
Did not bat: †M V Boucher, M Morkel, P L Harris, D W Steyn, M Ntini.
Bowling: Lee 27-4-73-1; Johnson 34.2-5-98-3; Siddle 26-2-84-0; Krejza 24-2-102-0; Clarke 8-0-35-0.
Umpires: Aleem Dar (Pak) and E A R de Silva (S Lanka).Reuse content