It may have been a dead rubber at the end of a long summer, but a resolute Australia scrapped hard in the field to secure a consolation win in Johannesburg and move up to No. 2 in the ODI rankings. Both innings in the match followed a similar pattern: significant contributions from the top four before the middle order collapsed. Michael Hussey remained unbeaten to make sure Australia capitalised on the batting Powerplay and shepherded them past 300, but none of the South African batsmen played that role, leaving the tail too much to do.
South Africa appeared to be coasting towards victory when they had reached 186 for 2 after 34 overs, with Jacques Kallis and Man-of-the-Series AB de Villiers looking solid. Nathan Bracken then lured Kallis into a loose away-from-the-body waft which ended in Brad Haddin's gloves. Mitchell Johnson turned up the pressure a notch when he ended JP Duminy's short, shaky stay in the next over. It was still anybody's game when Mark Boucher swatted James Hopes straight to Nathan Hauritz at midwicket.
A stunning piece of fielding swung the match in Australia's favour. Albie Morkel, who has established a reputation as a game-changing big-hitter, had started confidently, crunching the ball powerfully square either side of the wicket. One of his slog-sweeps off Hauritz swirled high in the air and looked headed for a six; Ben Laughlin, at the edge of the boundary, leapt with perfect timing to pluck the ball two-handed, keeping his balance to ensure he remained within the field of play. South Africa had slid to 226 for 6 in the 42nd over, still 78 adrift.
With the wickets tumbling, de Villiers decided to take the Powerplay in the next over, but was bowled by Laughlin off the first ball. The match was effectively over, only the formalities remained.
It hadn't seemed as if South Africa would be bowled out when their top order was firing. Herschelle Gibbs had bludgeoned quick hundreds his two previous ODIs in Johannesburg, and he continued in the same vein on Friday. He got going with an effortless drive through the covers in the first over, which brought the nearly packed stadium to its feet. His cover-driving remained a feature of his innings, and he also routinely charged down the track to loft the bowlers in the arc between long-on and long-off.
Kallis was also in fluent touch, and the pair had collected 104 runs before Gibbs was undone by a flatter one from Hauritz. Kallis marched on to his half-century and Australia's chances were looking bleak before South Africa's middle-order caved in.
Australia had had their own collapse earlier. On a belter of a track, they were haunted by two of their familiar failings over the one-dayers against South Africa this year: their batsmen's inability to make centuries, and their struggles against spin. Their 303 was a competitive score but a lot more looked on the cards after the top order scored almost at will to motor along to 215 for 3 in 36 overs. South Africa's slow bowling was weakened by the absence of Johan Botha, but with Duminy filling the breach with three wickets and Roelof van der Merwe continuing to find international cricket easy, Australia's charge was derailed.
The spin pair choked the runs in a five-over period starting from the 31st over, and the attendant pressure fetched South Africa four quick wickets. Australia slipped to 246 for 7, but Michael Hussey kept his cool and capitalised on some less-than-satisfactory death bowling by South Africa, who allowed 45 runs off the final five overs.
It was a decent total but the onslaught from their openers, Haddin and Michael Clarke, had some thinking of the "438 game". It was Haddin who provided the initial impetus, carving a couple of short balls from Makhaya Ntini for four over the point fielder. Neither batsman was shy of chipping the ball over the infield, and Haddin was particularly keen on backing away and lofting over the covers.
The experiment to use Kallis early was abandoned after he leaked 21 in two overs. Some amateurish fielding from Morne Morkel gave away four runs and let Clarke reach his half-century; nothing was going right for the hosts.
South Africa came back into the game when both Haddin and Clarke gave catches to Duminy in the space of 11 runs. Callum Ferguson kept the momentum going, peppering the off-side boundaries to race to 41 before his dismissal in the 32nd over kicked off the phase where the spinners held sway.
The performance of their spinners has been one of South Africa's big gains over the ten one-dayers against Australia. The series may have ended with a loss, but South Africa can be proud of their ODI showings. They held their own against the world champions both at home and away to pocket the No. 1 ranking, and that after a 4-0 drubbing in their previous series against serious opposition.