Australia's longest day
Thirty-two balls remained in the Test match when Australia's spearhead Mitchell Johnson hit Vernon Philander on the pads. He was bowling around the wicket at a sharp angle, the ball arrowing well down the leg side. On tired legs, with an anguished face, Michael Clarke referred the decision. It was the surest sign of desperation.
When the not out decision was relayed by the big screen, Australian shoulders slumped just a fraction. Would they be denied again as they had been in Adelaide 17 months before? Would they end the richest summer unsatisfied?
Thirty balls remained in the Test match when Clarke called on Australia's heartbeat Ryan Harris. Whenever the Test match ended, Harris was due for knee surgery. Overdue in fact. Bone floats around the joint sticks out of it at times, revolting but also inspiring some of his teammates. He was also handicapped by a hip problem, and team management had budgeted for only 8-10 overs from him in the fourth innings.
His previous over, the 24th, seemed sure to be his last of the match, having looked ragged and barely made Dale Steyn play. But those slumped Australian shoulders straightened up as Harris set off on his run. He had delivered before, he would do so again, no matter how he was feeling, no matter the circumstances.
Three balls and two bowleds later, it was all over. Australia had the Ashes, won at home, and added to it new-found credibility won abroad in the most searching circumstances. Newlands will be remembered for decades, and it will stand out among the seven Test matches won by Australia in 2013-14 for how far the team was stretched.
Clarke's men always made the running in the match, but had to wring every last drop of effort from themselves to dislodge the best and most stubborn opponent of all. Harris' closing burst, well beyond anything the medical staff had expected from him, symbolised the effort required. The last bastion of summer was the hardest of all to crack, and when it finally did the sense of achievement was palpable.
Ninety-eight overs and seven hours are an awful long time to take six wickets, on a fifth day pitch with a five-strong bowling attack. Six balls among 588, with a new ball thrown in around halfway. With 41 overs thrown in from the previous night, the Australians had given themselves as much time as Clarke and the coach Darren Lehmann thought wise, before the "cooking" of bowlers became a factor. There are days when such a scenario can result in a finish well before lunch, the fielding side enjoying the fruits of their labours before the sun has peaked, and the batsmen ruing the mistakes earlier in the match that put them in such a position.
But as much as Australia wished for it, Newlands on March 5, 2014 was not one of those days. The creeping doubt and fear of another Adelaide 2012 loomed ever larger, as Clarke fretted increasingly over his declaration.
Signs were ominous in the first session when Kyle Abbott made himself about as hard a nightwatchman to dislodge as Fanie de Villiers had been in another Adelaide match two decades ago. It took James Pattinson's location of some reverse swing to find a way past him, and there was to be no rush of wickets following. Partnerships crept up in terms of balls rather than runs, as did Australia's anxiety and anger.
Much of it was directed at Faf du Plessis, who had not only been at the centre of the 2012 rearguard, but had also raised the ire of Australia by his insinuation of ball tampering on day three of the Test. Warner was particularly antagonistic, but his brio, while crouched at silly point, was prolonged by the fact that neither du Plessis nor his batting partners were going anywhere in a hurry. Every wicket had to be earned, as Harris did when he coaxed an edge from AB de Villiers after beating him repeatedly with the second new ball. In a day of hard-won gains, this was perhaps the most significant.
The loss of shine from the fresh projectile forced Clarke to resort to other avenues, and it was in this that he found an uncomfortable echo of 2012. Then as now, Nathan Lyon bowled tidily and judiciously but with not the mystery nor venom to find a way past dead bats. Before the match, Shane Warne had remarked that most spin bowlers took time to learn ways to succeed early on, before taking advantage of the rough.
Lyon's issue is quite the opposite, as he loses potency the further a match goes on. Both his mentor John Davison and Warne are aware of this, but must work further with Lyon to find the key to last-day success. For now though, Clarke had to rely on Steve Smith's leg breaks, and whooped alongside the rest when he winkled out du Plessis, lbw.
That wicket was celebrated as though the critical one, but the final session stretched every Australian reserve of patience and physical stamina. In the cases of James Pattinson, who engaged in a prolonged verbal joust with Vernon Philander before letting slip an angry beamer, and Clarke himself when confronting Steyn, the weight of the occasion was too much for their decorum. Australia's cricketers play their best when skirting the line between the aggressive and the boorish, and these moments of poor behaviour demonstrated the risks inherent in that. Clarke was wise enough to admit his fault in the aftermath.
As time ticked by, the memories of all that Clarke's men had achieved this summer could be recalled. Their ambush of England in Brisbane, Johnson's destruction in Adelaide, the Ashes clincher in Perth, before the pageantry of holiday hidings in Melbourne and Sydney. Centurion flew past in a similarly pleasant blur, before Port Elizabeth's reverse showed that the team retained numerous shortcomings in conditions not to their taste.
To rebound from that at Newlands, on a surface similar in its sluggishness, demonstrated a great deal of the team's progress, personified by the otherworldly batting of Warner, the naked intimidation of Johnson, and the burgeoning talent of Smith. As Clarke concluded:
"I don't think it's fair to compare it to the Ashes series that we just played. But I think an honest assumption would be that it's as good," Clarke said. "Any time that you beat the number one team in the world that's extremely special. For us to get over the line is very special for this Australian team. It certainly shows and represents that we're heading in the right direction as a team. It's our first bit of success away from home for a couple of years. I can't thank my teammates enough for their heart, their attitude, and the hunger. Davey sits here as a great example of the two things I've spoken to this team about, having the right attitude and having that hunger inside you to want more, to want to become a better player every single day."
But the indelible image of Cape Town will be that of Harris, summoned for a final spell of bowling at the Kelvin Grove End when he was in a far fitter state for a looming date with his surgeon in Melbourne. Earlier in the match Johnson had spoken of how Harris' will to overcome the physical hurdle of his troublesome knee had inspired plenty of others to ignore whatever minor ailments had affected them. At Newlands he went further than anyone could have expected, engineering a series victory that will stand comparison with anything achieved by Test teams from his country. At the moment of victory, Clarke was weary, relieved, and grateful. Australia's longest day of summer had become their most memorable.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here