South Africa entered the final day of the series and the third Test against Australia needing a further 314 runs to pull off an improbable win – but given their heroics in the first Test in Perth, a possible one.
Set an imposing victory target of 376 from a minimum 116 overs, the Proteas were 62 for 1 at stumps on day four. Stand-in captain Neil McKenzie and Hashim Amla resumed the fight for a history-making last-day win – and a series clean sweep – with at least 90 overs to be bowled.
Past run chases at the SCG suggested victory would elude the Proteas on a wearing wicket. Australia's fourth-innings total of 288 for 2 in the 2005-06 season against South Africa is the highest winning total in a Sydney Test.
The tourists' task was made more difficult by the absence of captain Graeme Smith who is nursing a broken finger and was highly unlikely to take any further part in proceedings.
After Australia declared their seconds innings at 257 for 4, Doug Bollinger made the early breakthrough, picking up his first Test wicket after makeshift opener Morne Morkel chipped a catch to Mitchell Johnson at mid-on for a duck. Amla survived a close call on five, edging Peter Siddle past a diving Brad Haddin. Ricky Ponting closed his side's innings after Michael Clarke was caught in the deep going after quick runs. Michael Hussey remained not out on 45.
Australia resumed on day four on 33 without loss with Matthew Hayden and Simon Katich at the crease. Hayden dragged Morkel on to his stumps after working hard in an attempt to build his first substantial score of the summer. He belted seven fours in a 63-ball stay that produced just as much sweat as substance. The 37-year-old was given a rousing send-off by the SCG crowd.
Ponting almost collected a king pair after trying to leave the first ball he faced only for it to catch the inside edge of his bat, narrowly missing the stumps and going to the boundary for four. The Australian skipper's innings then flourished as he raced to a half-century at almost a run a ball. It came as a surprise when he played on to Morkel attempting a cut shot.
There was also plenty of surprise when Katich was given out lbw to Dale Steyn, with only wicketkeeper Mark Boucher seemingly interested in an appeal. Clarke and Hussey then combined for a fourth-wicket partnership of 76 that helped place Australia into the box seat to win for the first time this series and cling on to their world No 1 spot.
South Africa's coach, Mickey Arthur, refused to rule out a victory. "If we can get ourselves to tea then [we will] have a look. If we are unscathed at tea time then we'll be ready to launch a proper assault," he said.
"There's a dressing room full of guys that don't want to give an inch. The guys have given their all and have been absolutely amazing for 14 days and none of us want to end up losing the last Test match. We went through that in England this year where we played fantastically well and went 2-0 up and lost the last Test match in a dead rubber. It took the gloss of our Test victories a little bit so we learnt the hard way there. There will be guys battling really hard to make sure it's either 2-0 or 3-0 and not 2-1."
Arthur admitted that Australia held the upper hand, however, bowling last on a well-worn SCG pitch that is playing the odd trick. "I think all three results are still possible and that's got to be good," he said. Asked if Smith would bat if the game was there to be won or drawn, Arthur admitted: "I doubt Graeme will come out tomorrow but if there is one over or two overs to see out to draw or one or two required to win, I think we're going to need a chain to chain him down in the dressing room."
Hussey had called for Australia to pull together as a team. "It's going to take all of us, like it did in the first innings," Hussey said. "Peter Siddle got the rewards [in the first innings] and got the five wickets but it was a collective effort and all the guys bowled particularly well. It's going to take a good hard grind of all the bowlers bowling well in partnerships, being patient, being disciplined – the things that we always talk about in our meetings – and a few tricks from the pitch would be nice as well to get us a couple of wickets."
If South Africa managed to win they would take over from Australia at the top of the ICC rankings.
Third Test (Fourth day of five)
Australia won toss
Australia – First Innings 445 (M J Clarke 138, M G Johnson 64)
South Africa – First Innings 327 (M V Boucher 89,
H M Amla 51, P M Siddle 5-59)
Australia – Second Innings (Overnight: 33-0)
M L Hayden b M Morkel 39
S M Katich lbw b Steyn 61
*R T Ponting b M Morkel 53
M E K Hussey not out 45
M J Clarke c Amla b Harris 41
Extras (b8 lb9 nb1) 18
Total (for 4 declared; 67.3 overs) 257
Fall: 1-62 2-134 3-181 4-257
Did not bat: †B J Haddin, A B McDonald, N M Hauritz, M G Johnson, P M Siddle, D E Bollinger.
Bowling: Steyn 13-1-60-1; Ntini 12-1-66-0; M Morkel 12-2-38-2; Kallis 10-5-13-0; Harris 20.3-1-63-1.
South Africa – Second Innings
N D McKenzie not out 25
M Morkel c Johnson b Bollinger 0
H M Amla not out 30
Extras (lb5 w2) 7
Total (for 1; 26 overs) 62
To bat: *G C Smith, J H Kallis, A B de Villiers, J P Duminy, †M V Boucher, D W Steyn, P L Harris, M Ntini.
Bowling: Siddle 6-1-16-0; Bollinger 4-1-11-1; Johnson 5-0-14-0; McDonald 5-3-8-0; Hauritz 5-2-8-0; Clarke 1-1-0-0.
Umpires: B F Bowden (NZ) and E A R de Silva (S Lanka).