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Missing a frontline bowler, against an in-form team, racing against time, Graeme Smith's side underlined their No. 1 status in the final session
Firdose Moonda in Port Elizabeth
February 23, 2014
Champion teams do not hesitate. They make decisions based on supreme belief in their own abilities and nothing else.
That's why there was some scepticism when Graeme Smith let Hashim Amla bat for 90 minutes this morning despite starting the day with a lead of 369 and a scoring rate at under four an over for the first 10 overs. Surely he thought South Africa had enough and backed his pack to do the job?
Champion bowlers do not need green tops to perform. South Africa's attack already proved that in the first innings. On a surface that even Mitchell Johnson could not extract anything from, Morne Morkel bowled one of the most aggressive spells of his career.
But even champions sometimes look ordinary. We don't even have to go all the way back to Centurion to see it. The first 30-odd overs of the Australian second innings was enough to show that.
Dale Steyn searched for swing unsuccessfully and ending up overpitching in his first mini-spell of two overs. Vernon Philander got seam movement but David Warner's good fortune hadn't gone anywhere and the edges didn't carry. Morkel's bouncers could be ducked under and then hit away. Warner smacked a quartet of boundaries in succession to make Australia look more than comfortable.
Without a fourth seamer, because of Wayne Parnell's injury, and two part-time spinners to do the tweaking job, South Africa looked in trouble. Add to that their increasing fumbles in the field - Warner was put down for a fifth time in this series when Duminy failed to collect off his own bowling - and it seemed South Africa were in a for a dose of their own Adelaide-laced medicine.
Then, even their own instincts deserted them when they appealed for a catch against Chris Rogers, who went fishing after a Steyn wide ball. It was turned down and South Africa opted to not review the decision. Both Hot Spot and Snicko confirmed the nick. South Africa would not have enjoyed a pleasant tea-time and more went wrong for them straight afterwards when Alex Doolan edged Philander to AB de Villiers but extensive replays determined the ball bounced just before ricocheting off the gloves.
After a collection of moments like that is when champion teams separate themselves from the rest. Champion teams find a way. South Africa's was in reverse swing. They worked on one side and used the part-time spinner early, from the 13th over, to age the ball as quickly as possible.
The signs came early when Morkel got the first reverse swing. The ball moved away from Rogers, who was drawn into a tentative push. South Africa had something they could use. But they didn't even need it against Doolan.
He made himself a target with laziness outside the offstump. Philander zoned in on it first, inducing an edge which did not carry to Graeme Smith at first slip. Smith moved himself forward a step. The next Doolan pushed casually, off Morkel, Smith was in the right position to take the catch.
An astute judgment call created the opening and then it was up to the attack to make use of the tools at their disposal to deepen it. They responded to the call immediately. Philander swung one in to Marsh, who looked to play square and missed it. Lbw. Another duck at St George's for the Centurion centurion.
That should probably have been the wicket that brought Steyn back on but with Morkel and Philander causing enough trouble and an out-of-form opposition captain, Smith kept them on. Clarke edged the first ball he faced, well short, but he edged nonetheless. Although Clarke said after the third day's play that he felt in great touch, he did not look it in the middle. He was uncertain against Philander, he was beaten, and when Smith saw Morkel was taking the ball too far away for Clarke to bother with, he played his strongest hand.
Steyn came back on and greeted Clarke with inswinger. Then he went the other way Clarke played at it, edged it and Faf du Plessis collected it. Steyn's eyes were dancing. The next ball was the inswinger again and it had Steve Smith pinned in his crease and struck straight in front. The chainsaw came out and it was as though it had been set on fire. Steyn fist-pumped like a mad man. There was a sense he knew this match would end today.
Day four seemed like day five because South Africa were not just hunting Australia's line-up, they were also chasing the weather. Rain is forecast for all of Monday with some predicting 10mm and others over 50mm. It was not a chance South Africa was willing to take. They wanted it over today.
Steyn ensured it would be when he beat Brad Haddin in the same way he had in the first innings. The late swing snuck past the inside edge and snapped middle stump in two. Hearts stopped. Goosebumps sprouted. Emotions swelled and jaws dropped. Steyn opened the door for South Africa to finish on their own terms.
He added one more to his tally when Ryan Harris was given out lbw to complete his web of damage. He had threatened through the outside edge, the stumps and the pads, as Jason Gillespie put it, but in fading light, he could not threaten for much longer.
The umpires decided on the extra half-an-hour because they thought a result was possible this evening. South Africa had to rely on Duminy and Elgar to do the rest. It was only fitting that the area of their game that was letting them down, stood up. Alviro Petersen, the man who was too ill to play this match, was standing at mid-off when Rogers decided to try and put Peter Siddle on strike against the spinner. He ran Rogers out so South Africa only needed one more.
Then, Dean Elgar the man whose central contract must surely be under consideration, gave South Africa a series-levelling win. In hindsight, he shouldn't have had it because Nathan Lyon had hit the ball. In hindsight, if the marginal call had gone Harris' way instead of Steyn's, this match may be going into a fifth.
Champion teams don't do hindsight either. The jury may still be out on whether South Africa have done enough to be listed among the all-time champion teams. But there can be no debate that the way they bowled after tea was the work of a champion attack.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
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