Australia win despite Smith's gutsy return
For the second consecutive year Australia have pulled off a last-minute victory in the Sydney Test, this time despite a courageous and painful batting effort from the injured Graeme Smith. Last season it was Michael Clarke who bowled Australia home nine minutes from stumps and on this occasion Mitchell Johnson picked up the final wicket with five minutes remaining to give Australia a consolation win that left the series ledger a little less lopsided at 2-1.
The last breakthrough came when Johnson nipped a ball back off a crack in the wearing pitch to bowl Smith, who had been incredibly gutsy in coming to the crease at No. 11 with a broken left hand and a right elbow so sore he said he could barely brush his teeth in the morning. Smith survived for 29 minutes with Makhaya Ntini as he aimed to salvage a draw but every fast ball he faced drew winces around the ground as he quickly released his left hand and gritted his teeth.
It was difficult to watch but an appropriate end to a series that has for three weeks been impossible to look away from. When Smith strode to the crease to a standing ovation it was after a 75-minute partnership between Ntini and Dale Steyn that looked like creating a fitting coda for a series in which tails have wagged and Australia seemed to have forgotten how to win. The feeling only increased when Matthew Hayden put down a sitter at slip to reprieve Ntini with half an hour left.
But when it mattered Australia's new-look attack, which had come together as the team's reputation diminishes, did manage to hold onto a No. 1 ranking that was a legacy of past champion sides. Led by the Man of the Match Peter Siddle, they were toiling on the sort of cracking surface that might have brought carnage in the Warne-McGrath years, when Australia would more likely have been chasing a clean-sweep rather than trying to prevent one.
This year the home team entered the day with the series already lost and needing nine wickets from Siddle, Johnson, Doug Bollinger, Nathan Hauritz and Andrew McDonald. All played a part, and McDonald's lbw to remove Steyn was a particularly key moment.
As the bowlers have discovered all summer, it's not easy being green. In the words of Kermit the Frog, green blends in with so many ordinary things and Australia's once extraordinary attack was starting to look run-of-the-mill. Under serious pressure to deliver, especially in the final session, they eventually achieved their goal.
Siddle, who had picked up five wickets in the first innings, was again a handful with his speed and lift. Bollinger found a hint of swing and set up the victory with the first two strikes of the innings. Hauritz turned the ball more than he has in years and McDonald was naggingly accurate. The most pleasing thing for Ricky Ponting was that the even contributions meant he did not have to break the back of Johnson, the veteran of the group in his 18th Test.
The young attack will take plenty of confidence from the result ahead of the tour of South Africa. The South African batsmen have lifted their team out of enough holes on this tour but on this occasion the craters in the pitch were inescapable. AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla scored half-centuries and each looked for a while like he might be the rescuer but the task was slightly too great.
Siddle's three strikes turned Australia's position from good to powerful. He was lucky to have Mark Boucher lbw to a ball that would have missed leg stump but earned the wickets of de Villiers, who was bowled for 56, and Paul Harris, with fast and straight bowling. It was the same method Johnson used to remove Smith and, earlier in the day, JP Duminy, who was lbw for 16.
Duminy and de Villiers, the heroes in Perth, had steadied with a 56-run stand after Australia struck three times before lunch. The loss of the well set Amla in the fifties for the third time in the series was a big blow. Amla had played well for 59, his best score of the three Tests, only to squeeze a Hauritz offbreak onto his pad and to short leg.
It compounded South Africa's problems after the early departures of Neil McKenzie, who chased a wide one from Bollinger, and Jacques Kallis, who came to the crease needing 16 to reach 10,000 Test runs and will fly home still 12 runs short. Kallis tried to work McDonald to leg and his leading edge popped up towards the middle of the pitch, where McDonald hurled himself to his right to grab a brilliant one-hander that after inconclusive replays was adjudged to have not included a touch of the ball on the ground.
It turned out to be one of those days when things just didn't go South Africa's way. They lost the match and failed to claim the No. 1 ranking but as they sprayed champagne with the series trophy in hand after the loss, it was a timely reminder that their job was done before this match even began. Besides, any sort of win in the return series in South Africa will give them the No. 1 spot. Unlike in the dying stages at the SCG, time is on their side.
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo