Much to laud, much to lament
For South Africa, beating Australia in a home series would have been the final Test frontier. Victory would have completed their pack of cards and given them series triumphs over all Test-playing countries, both home and away.
Instead, they will have to wait at least another two years for a chance to come full circle. The drawn series also means that South Africa have gone four series without winning at home, with their last triumph in 2008, over Bangladesh. Still, they are ranked third in the world and have a Test outfit that produces some of the most gripping and enchanting contests this form of the game currently showcases.
South Africa are in possession of a pace attack that is lauded as the most aggressive in the world, a top six that can withstand some of the best quicks, tweakers and medium-pacers the game has to offer, and fielders who dart around as though run-saving was worth all the money in the world. They have given Test cricket some of the game's most tense moments, most dramatic collapses and recoveries, and most emotional passages of play, and that's just in this series. At the end of it, they had half a trophy to show for their efforts and the whole alphabet of disappointment written on Graeme Smith's grim face.
"It's not ideal," the captain said, his expression giving away far more than that those three words could capture, when asked about South Africa's poor home record of late. "We need to improve on certain facets of our game. There were a lot of really good things, but there were [also] things we really need to improve on. Considering that we haven't played in [about] eight months, there was no in-between."
But there was. Perhaps in the aftermath of a draining Test, the only colours Smith could see were black and white. The subtleties of other shades were lost on him, but as the days wear on, he will start to see them. Overall, South Africa have much to laud and much to lament, tied series result reflects that.
With the ball, they were incisive at some times, ineffectual at others. The emergence of Vernon Philander as an authoritative figure with the new ball has taken South Africa's seam attack forward, for sure. After two seasons of playing the SuperSport Series, which yielded 80 wickets, Philander made himself impossible to ignore; he had the best average of any bowler who had taken more than 250 wickets in first-class cricket.
Despite that, on the cusp of Test debut, he had more doubters than supporters. With every one of the 14 wickets he took, he proved them wrong. He is fit, he is determined and he compliments the rest of the attack. "Vernon has been stand out," Gary Kirsten, the South Africa, coach said. "He has served his time at first-class level and we felt that we wanted to give him an opportunity, and he has come in and delivered the goods."
With the new-ball pair of Philander and Steyn, the change bowlers of Morne Morkel and Jacques Kallis, and the attacking option of Imran Tahir, the South Africa attack is the most dynamic it has ever been. Tahir had been the missing element in their bowling but, as yet, the jury is out on whether he has fitted in as precisely as the team would have liked. He proved his worth on the second afternoon when he cleaned up Australia's lower order in nine overs, and was expected to do the same on the fifth day, on a wearing pitch. But the morning drizzle did not help. Then, he was tossed the ball at the worst of times, with Australia needing five to win. Still, Tahir caused problems with his lbw appeal against Pat Cummins, and his googly has emerged as one of the most dangerous weapons of the South Africa attack.
Perhaps batsmen will learn to pick him in future and he will have to continually improve aspects of his game. Perhaps he will be taken out of the mix before he becomes a factor, particularly if he insists on running on the pitch and is warned enough times. Smith admitted that Tahir is not quite the finished product just yet. "It's his first taste of Test cricket and he now knows what he needs to improve on. He felt a little bit of pressure from running on the wicket and that needs to be addressed," Smith said.
"With ball in hand, he has ability. He needs to find a way to make that ability match up to Test match cricket as well as it has in first-class cricket. That's the challenge of the management team."
Should they handle him correctly, Tahir will form a cog as important as Dale Steyn, who spearheads the attack, even when he is not at his best. Steyn needed a few spells to get into rhythm in this series, at times he bowled slower than usual, at times with seemingly less intent. Kirsten felt that the demands on him could be eased. "The one thing about Dale Steyn is that he has to be running in with full intensity. It's a massive physical demand on him to get it up to 145 [kph]," he said. "He is a skilled enough bowler to bowl at 80% and still be a factor. It would be unrealistic of us to expect him to be up at 145 every session."
The batting, meanwhile, remains consistent, with the exception of the opening position. Jacques Rudolph came in to partner Smith and although he looked confident, could not get beyond a start. Kirsten indicated that Rudolph will be given more time to show his competence. "I would like to give guys decent opportunities and for them know that they've got a bit of a run," he said. "You need guys to settle in and know that they are not being watched every minute of the day. That's not healthy."
He also voiced support for the under-fire Mark Boucher, whose non-performance with the bat has meant South Africa's tail starts at No. 7. "We would all like to see him fire," Kirsten said. "He [Boucher] fully acknowledges that it's important for him to fire at No. 7 for us and he doesn't need me to tell him that. He knows it."
Kirsten's words tell of the in-betweens that Smith could not see as he was too caught up in the moment. It's the blooding of new players, the contributions of old hands and the vision for the Test team in the coming months. In some ways it shows the map for the future being laid out, in others it points to a lack of ruthlessness, which is probably the primary reason for South Africa's inability to cross their final frontier this time.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent