Australia in control but South Africa refuse to fold
Australia sat in the preferred position with a lead of 322 after the third day, but South Africa monitored every movement as they managed not to lose touch with the world champions. The tourists tailed their opponents at various distances and held them to 7 for 228 at stumps on a pitch that is not stirring nightmares.
Despite such a healthy buffer, Australia were unable to streak away in the manner they had hoped after taking an advantage of 94 on first innings in the opening session, when Mitchell Johnson collected his eighth wicket. Rather than batting South Africa out of the contest by setting a victory target of more than 400, a series of poorly timed dismissals left the result of the game open.
Needing a strong response after being dismissed for 281, South Africa gained regular ground against an outfit that was struggling with a variety of ailments. Ricky Ponting was in pain from a stomach problem on his 34th birthday while Matthew Hayden and Michael Hussey battled unsuccessfully during unconvincing displays.
With the focus intensifying, Michael Clarke and Andrew Symonds fell to shots that even they would admit to being irresponsible. Brett Lee was just unlucky to edge the ball anywhere near AB de Villiers, who flew in the cordon for another magnificent dismissal.
Brad Haddin masked the mistakes with 39, which included two straight sixes in an over from Paul Harris, in an unbeaten partnership of 66 in 15.1 overs with Jason Krezja, who eased to 28 and ensured Australia finished on a high. However, it will be up to South Africa's batsmen over the next two days to determine the cost of the home side's errors.
Graeme Smith's men knew they were still alive when Ponting and Hussey fell in consecutive overs with the score on 88. While the back-to-back wickets were important for the status of the match, they also showed the tourists would not fold despite a demoralising implosion against Johnson on the second afternoon.
Ponting, who took regular time out to stretch, enjoyed the spin of Harris more than the probing pace of Jacques Kallis, but he got too aggressive and was caught behind trying to force off the back foot on 32. Hussey (8) was the fourth to exit when he lost his off stump, under-edging an attempted pull off Makhaya Ntini, an event which continued Australia's tendency in this match to lose wickets in groups at crucial times.
A subdued stand of 60 between Clarke and Symonds, who were tied down by tight bowling and constrictive fields, ended when Clarke flashed outside off stump to Dale Steyn and Symonds also suffered from a lack of control. A ball after drinks in the third session he went down to loft Harris over mid-on, but found Smith with a shot that did not have his full force. It was his second terminal choice to Harris in the game and he muttered off with 37.
Harris performed an important role, suffocating the batsmen during a return of 2 for 64 from 23 overs, and Kallis was even tighter, matching Harris' haul and going at 1.72 per over. Steyn would return for short blasts during the day and was also successful twice.
While the visitors have the much tougher assignment, it was a shame for Johnson that the teams were brought closer together. Johnson captured the eighth-best figures by an Australian to put his side in the dominant position.
Johnson earned his only breakthrough of the third day with a bouncer to Steyn, who ducked but didn't drop his hands and the ball hit his glove on the way to Haddin. Haddin was about a metre away from giving Johnson a ninth victim when Mark Boucher top-edged a pull and it fell between the diving wicketkeeper and Lee, who was running around from fine-leg. Instead of the best haul by an Australian in an innings, Johnson had to settle for a spot on a list including Glenn McGrath, Bob Massie and Shane Warne.
South Africa's tail was a nuisance for the home team with Boucher (24) adding 25 for the final wicket. Peter Siddle got the final breakthrough, his first in Australia, when Boucher cut to Simon Katich, who then sprinted off the field to prepare for his innings.
Katich was much more lively in his 37 than his struggling partner Hayden, who was fortunate to escape an lbw appeal from Steyn. After raising his bat in mock celebration at scoring his first run from his 20th ball, Hayden was the victim, balancing the previous mistake, when Steyn's delivery hit his pad and rebounded to the bowler. Aleem Dar ruled it a caught-and-bowled and will do well to make a bigger error in the next year.
Hayden left with more scrutiny on his position after a double failure of 12 and 4 that took his Australian-season tally to 48 in three Tests. The bowlers will also have a fierce examination as the match concludes.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo