At Sydney, January 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 2009. Australia won by 103 runs. Toss: Australia. Test debuts: Doug Bollinger, Andrew McDonald.
The Third Test might have been a dead rubber, but it held great significance for both teams. It was not just about the No. 1 world ranking that would have changed hands had South Africa achieved a clean sweep, but something more basic. Something that made Graeme Smith, by then unable to dress himself, much less do up his pads, walk out to bat needing to survive 8.2 overs to salvage a draw.
Smith provided the defining image of the Test, which was won for Australia when Johnson found the same crack that in the first innings caused a ball to spit up and smash South Africa's captain on the knuckle, breaking his left hand. This time the ball jagged back into the stumps to seal Australia's consolation victory with five minutes and ten balls left in the game. It was the second successive Sydney cliffhanger: in January 2008 India's last wicket had fallen with just nine minutes left on the clock.
It was a dramatic finish to a captivating series, complete with two dropped catches that allowed South Africa to inch closer to safety, one of which turned out to be Matthew Hayden's last act in Test cricket. Some pointed out that Australia's quest for 20 wickets remained unfulfilled, given that Smith retired hurt on 30 in the first innings and had only partial use of each arm in the second, but that was a mean-spirited assessment of a new-look attack with a combined experience of only 23 Tests.
While South Africa saw in the New Year with a cruise, and coach Mickey Arthur made good his promise to mark the series win with a dip in the harbour, the Australians resolved to put 2008 behind them and make a fresh start. They didn't have much choice; injuries forced them to field two debutants for the first time since late 1999. Doug Bollinger, a larger-than-life left-armer who promised to bring passion and aggression to the attack, was preferred to Ben Hilfenhaus because of his superior record at the SCG; and Andrew McDonald, a flame-haired all-rounder from the Murray River region who thought his Test chance had passed him by, was next in line behind the injured Andrew Symonds and Shane Watson. Some felt the selectors had deferred a tougher decision by giving Hayden another chance to recover his powers.
The first session was striking for the contrast between Hayden and his in-form opening partner Katich, who raced to 47 from 52 balls before Kallis found an edge. Hayden's stay was easily his longest for the summer, lasting more than two and a half hours, but his 31 was a battle of attrition that ended when he dragged an attempted cover-drive on to his stumps. Ponting, after his fine double at Melbourne, was out first ball this time, nicking a shortish delivery from Morkel that came back in to him.
Clarke enhanced his credentials as a future leader with a fine 138, his first century in five Tests at his home ground. He danced out of his crease to attack Harris, and shared a 142-run stand with Johnson to ensure Australia's biggest total of the series. Johnson was fast assuming superhuman qualities, and later threw down the stumps to run out a sluggish de Villiers after putting Smith in hospital.
By the third day, the snaking cracks had become crevices that made batting especially difficult for left-handers, as Duminy found when one ball reared up at an alarming angle over the wicketkeeper's head and another thundered low into his pads. While Johnson aimed at the cracks, Siddle bowled fast and straight, stump to stump, and was rewarded with his maiden five-for. In four Tests, Siddle had become an immensely popular figure in the dressing-room for his tireless, no-frills approach, and on the fifth afternoon as he sniffed the first win of his short career it was the former wood-chopper (a junior champion, no less) from country Victoria who could be seen clapping and screaming to gee up his team-mates.
Hayden returned to the crease in belligerent mood, but his dismissal was eerily similar to the first innings, and he was given a standing ovation for what the crowd correctly sensed was his last stand. Half-centuries for Ponting and Katich enabled Australia to declare soon after tea on the fourth day with a lead of 375. South Africa slipped to 91 for three when McDonald lunged to grasp a screamer of a return catch. Kallis (12 short of reaching 10,000 runs in Tests) was given out though replays were inconclusive as to whether the ball had scraped the pitch. Amla and de Villiers firmed up the innings, but as the Australians struck regular blows all eyes turned to the visitors' dressing-room, where Smith sat in his green tracksuit.
Some time during Steyn's 65-minute stand with Ntini the wounded captain borrowed white clothes - the shirt came from Kallis, and a sweater, complete with hamburger stain, from Harris - then took off the plastic cast encasing his broken hand and slipped it gingerly into a glove. When McDonald made amends for dropping Ntini by trapping Steyn lbw, and Smith materialised at No. 11, the crowd stood and roared. He lasted 26 minutes, wincing with pain and releasing his left hand when the ball jarred his bat. Australian anxieties rose when Hayden dropped the irrepressible Ntini in the dying stages, but the pitch was worn and the attack desperate, and not even South Africa's Captain Courageous could stop the exhausted Johnson from sealing an exciting, confidence-boosting win. Smith admitted afterwards: "It probably would have got me if I had both arms available."
Man of the Match: Peter Siddle
Man of the Series: Graeme Smith