"We need to break the hoodoo," was how Graeme Smith went into this match with both teams 1-1 in the five-game series. After losing every toss against Ricky Ponting over the summer, Smith finally won one and South Africa piled up 289 on a track that wasn't always conducive to batting. Then the bowlers and fielders struck early in the piece and despite a spirited rear-guard effort took a one-game lead. Even a floodlight failure couldn't dim South Africa.
Two days ago Ponting blamed himself for Australia's batting predicament, saying it was about time he scored another century. That didn't happen and for the third game running the top order wobbled, putting immense pressure on an inexperienced middle. Chasing a stiff target of 290, Australia slumped to 114 for 5 before Callum Ferguson and James Hopes tried to make a match of it. But in the end, the target was beyond Australia's lower order.
Dale Steyn and Wayne Parnell gave away little with the new ball, keeping it just a fraction short and denying the batsmen the length and width to free their arms. They were backed by some sharp fielding, with JP Duminy and Herschelle Gibbs - 11 years separating their ages - vying for top honours. Brad Haddin's dismissal was down to the pressure built up - an anxious Michael Clarke tapped the ball toward cover and set off but Duminy scored a direct hit to beat Haddin by an inch.
Ponting survived a drop and a missed run-out but those didn't turn out to be costly misses because he chipped a catch back to Johan Botha for 20. Clarke's painful innings came to end with an ugly heave against Roelef van der Merwe's left-arm spin. Then in the same over South Africa were handed a slice of luck when Rudi Koertzen failed to spot an inside edge off Michael Hussey's bat and adjudged him lbw. David Hussey chipped Duminy to long-on.
Ferguson again demonstrated a cool head, refusing to indulge in the sort of sloppy batting that undid his experienced team-mates. He used his crease expertly against Morkel and Parnell, who both returned to serve up some four-balls, and scrapped 63 from 68 balls. The asking rate kept mounting and Ferguson and Hopes were always up against it, though they played some classy shots. They began with harried singles and doubles and, as their confidence grew, hit a healthy dose of boundaries.
At the end of the 43rd over, Australia's innings was halted for 25 minutes due to floodlight failure. When play resumed, van der Merwe had Ferguson caught in the deep to end a 97-run stand in 88 balls. Duminy nailed another throw to get Mitchell Johnson, Hopes raised a brisk half-century and South Africa won emphatically.
The rest of the batsmen might have done well to pick a few tips from Jacques Kallis and AB de Villiers, who batted wonderfully in the early stages of the game when the Australian attack was on top on a demanding track. Smith was uncomfortable batting on this pitch - with the ball not coming on easily - and nicked Johnson behind while irritation got the better of Gibbs after hard-handed drives and paddles failed, as he picked out deep midwicket for a 47-ball 26. Those dismissals gave Australia hope but that was quickly shut out by a 114-run stand.
Kallis came out looking to dominate on the ground where he learnt his cricket. He adopted a twitchy approach, shuffling back and forward to try and keep the bowlers guessing. It worked well, as evident by numerous steers past third man and two forceful boundaries, one on-driven with a venture across the stumps and the other punched past point on the rise after he made room. Kallis used his wrists to steer the ball into the gaps with impressive placement.
de Villiers decided he would walk right across and try and score runs to the leg side, but also square-drove flashily when offered room. Once the ball lost its hardness and Hopes and David came on, de Villiers used his feet with confidence. Flicking smoothly and finding the gaps in the field, de Villiers went about rebuilding with a bit of flair. From hunting singles, the pair were soon pilfering the odd boundary and converting ones into twos.
Kallis had raised his strike-rate until he was caught at short midwicket pulling a short ball from Brett Geeves. South Africa opted for the batting Powerplay four overs later and it began with de Villiers spooning Johnson to mid-off. Duminy also fell in the Powerplay - which only went for 33 runs - but that brought in the man for the moment in Mark Boucher, who had a blast with the bat.
He crashed 28 from 15 balls, including two whistling sixes, and added 53 in five overs with Morkel, who hit 29 from 25 before he became Johnson's fourth wicket. The hosts added 93 in the last ten overs and that proved to be crucial.
Until tonight Australia's tour had been a mirror image of when South Africa visited. Smith was determined to break the pattern and win the series. He is one game away from sealing it.