De Villiers and Steyn to the fore
AB de Villiers
South Africa's best player was the man who could be their next captain and the good news is he enjoys additional responsibility. De Villiers was their top scorer by some distance with 341 runs at 56.83, took the record for the longest streak of fifties in consecutive Tests (12) and his century at St George's Park set South Africa up to level the series. It also ushered JP Duminy back to form. He also rightly asked for a review for a catch off Duminy's bowling which proved correct. He batted within himself for five hours and 26 minutes to try and save the last Test.
Even with nothing in his stomach, Steyn was able to run in for more overs and take more wickets than any of his team-mates in Centurion. Even on one leg, he was able to hold his own at the crease for an hour and a quarter, face 44 balls and not get frustrated by the single run to his name. In between that he produced one of the most breathtaking spells of reverse swing in recent memory to ensure South Africa beat Australia and the weather inside four days in Port Elizabeth. Illness and injury stopped him from being at his best in the first and third but, with 12 wickets in the series, he was still better than anyone else in his team.
South Africa's scariest bowler does not have the wickets to explain the damage he caused but he deserves credit. Morkel was the quickest and the most miserly of the home pack and put his energy into working over the opposition captain. He hit Michael Clarke on the elbow, chest, glove and helmet at Newlands but he did not get him out. Morkel still does not mix as many full deliveries into his short-ball barrage, so he often butters up batsmen for others to get out.
With his duck in the first innings in Port Elizabeth, Amla went seven innings without a half-century and there was worry he was stuck in the doldrums. He shot out with a beautifully composed century in the second and helped South Africa set the victory target. He also formed the first line of defence in the second innings at Newlands, pushing the match into the fifth day.
Faf du Plessis
The rescue-artist was in his element because South Africa often needed salvaging this series. Du Plessis partnered Dean Elgar in Port Elizabeth and pulled South Africa up from 11 for 2. At Newlands, he top-scored with 67 in the first innings and threatened a repeat of his Adelaide exploits in the second. He also provided one of the most entertaining sub-plots of the series when he compared Australia's fielders to a pack of dogs and they promptly howled him off the field when they dismissed him.
His development into a genuine all-round option grew when he contributed with bat and ball - 223 runs and seven wickets - to allow South Africa to operate without a specialist spinner for the two-thirds of the contest. Duminy helped build the foundation of the series-leveling win in Port Elizabeth when he found form with a calm 123 and he played a role in sealing victory by dismissing Warner in the chase. His four wickets at Newlands also included Warner and his ability to break partnerships is something South Africa may call on in future.
Philander's bowling average ballooned to 51.71 in this series, his worst to date. He was guilty of bowling too full and not adhering as closely to his fourth-stump line, which made him an ideal target for an aggressive Australian line-up. But he made a bold statement with bat in hand. Philander spent a total of eight hours and 14 minutes at the crease across the five innings in which he batted and at Newlands showcased his ability to resist. He was not out in both innings and almost saved the series. South Africa do not need to look for another lower-order all-rounder. They have one in Philander.
In tough bowling conditions and without a leader in the attack, Abbott performed admirably in the first innings at Newlands. He found the smallest hint of swing and concentrated on accuracy. He was better rewarded in the second although his three wickets came long after Australia were on the charge. Abbott also displayed temperament when asked to act as nightwatchman and held up his end for six minutes short of two hours.
His role in the series was initially thought to be limited to putting down Warner at fine leg when he was fielding as a substitute in Centurion, but Elgar found himself in the playing XI in the next Test. Despite having lost his national contract, he braved blows from Johnson and rescued South Africa from a shaky start. He did not contribute much more with the bat and his left-arm spin leaves much to be desired but he showed he could turn into a handy cricketer for South Africa.
He waited four years to play a fourth Test and when he did, it only lasted briefly. Parnell send down 8.3 overs of promise and took two wickets in his first three deliveries to script an important part of their comeback. Whether he will make one of his own will depend on how soon he recovers from a groin strain.
After the first Test in which he showed none of the control an opening batsman should have, Petersen was thought be suffering a severe case of Johnsonitis when gastro kept him out of the second. He seemed to have lost ground to Elgar but on his return, Petersen blasted a shaky half-century in the David Warner mould. He was intent on getting the runs before the Australians got him and it probably bought him some time at the top.
Adequate is the best word to describe McLaren's contributions. As the first-choice in South Africa's plan to plug the Jacques Kallis-sized hole in their team, he was expected to bat in the lower-order and perform the duties of a fourth seamer. He did both but not outstandingly. With Parnell and Abbott making more memorable marks on the series, he may have fallen behind in the queue.
This is not the way Smith would have wanted it to end but perhaps it serves as confirmation his exit was not premature. Smith did not last longer than 19 minutes in any of the six innings and never faced more than 24 deliveries. He looked uncomfortable and unhappy when at the crease and allowed Australia to target him as they promised to. His poor form also meant South Africa did not get off to a single good start, with their highest opening stand a mere 20.
As a leader, Smith was also going through a difficult patch while he wrestled with his feelings over retirement. He made the right decision at the right time to declare in Port Elizabeth and managed an attack without a bowler in all three matches.
Quinton de Kock
When the boy wonder charged Steve Smith and slapped him straight to mid-off to depart for 7 in his first innings in Test cricket, those who said he was too inexperienced for the longest format at the highest level were not surprised. That shot smacked of the recklessness of youth. He played his way to a more measured 34 in the second dig but still needs to mature into a Test player, which is also evident from his lack of awareness in the field, which suggests he may be more comfortable behind the stumps.
It may be over for Peterson after he was overlooked for the second and third Tests. He was expensive in the first and with South Africa struggling to get the balance of their side right, had to be dispensed with in favour of part-timers.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent