Ryan Harris goes under the knife for knee surgery after this series - he does not know what the future holds. He may play Test cricket again, but at 34 there are no guarantees. Whatever happens, he has delivered one of the great triumphs in Australia's re
Ryan Harris goes under the knife for knee surgery after this series - he does not know what the future holds. He may play Test cricket again, but at 34 there are no guarantees. Whatever happens, he has delivered one of the great triumphs in Australia's recent Test history, bowling the team to a series victory over South Africa, the world's No.1-ranked side, when it seemed almost inevitable that Graeme Smith would be farewelled by his men with a fighting, fitting draw.
Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn batted together for 75 minutes as Australia sought the two remaining wickets they needed for victory and as the shadows grew longer, the looks on the faces of Michael Clarke and his men became more desperate. With five overs left, Clarke asked Harris for one last effort and he delivered, yorking Steyn first ball and then slipping one past Morne Morkel's bat two balls later to clatter the off stump and deliver a 245-run win, and a 2-1 series success.
Harris finished with 4 for 32 from 24.3 overs, a remarkable achievement for a man who looked spent. At times throughout the day he was hobbling and he pulled up in his delivery stride once late in the day, stretching and checking on his knee as he walked back to his mark again. Mitchell Johnson picked up three wickets but Harris was the man who delivered when it mattered most, including by getting rid of the stonewalling AB de Villiers after lunch.
For much of the day it seemed that South Africa might just pull off one last draw for Smith. Under his leadership they won a lot but just as notable has been their ability not to lose. Their last series defeat before this was against Australia five years ago. Smith will leave the game having lost only two of his last 27 Test series as captain. That is some sort of record. In the end, his men were unable to keep the Australians out for long enough.
That a day on which only 194 runs were scored in 93.3 overs could be so gripping is encouraging for Test cricket. This day was never going to be about the runs; South Africa could have batted until day seven and not reached their target of 511. It was simply a question of wickets - could Australia claim the six they needed throughout the day. South Africa's ability to bat out a draw in similar circumstances in Adelaide a year and a half ago suggested that it would be tough work.
And as in Adelaide, de Villiers and Faf du Plessis did their best to deny Australia. They came together after the nightwatchman Kyle Abbott frustrated the Australians during a near two-hour innings of defiant defence. At times when he faced Johnson all nine fielders were in catching positions. Eventually he fell for 7 from 89 balls when he shouldered arms to a James Pattinson ball that nipped in and clipped the top of off stump.
De Villiers was laborious but effective for South Africa's purposes, using up 326 minutes and 228 balls for his 43. Harris was the man who got rid of de Villiers, who pushed half-heartedly outside off stump and got a thick edge behind off a ball that nipped away just enough off the seam. It was a vital breakthrough after lunch, although an equally important one came just before tea when Steven Smith struck in the first ball of a new spell, drifting one in and turning it just enough to have du Plessis lbw for 47.
That left four wickets needed in the final session. Worryingly for Clarke, Nathan Lyon was having no impact, just as had been the case in that Adelaide draw. At times he bowled too quick, and like his colleagues, offered up too many balls that the South Africans could leave. The Australians became frazzled and frayed, but Clarke managed to manufacture a wicket by placing a leg slip, Lyon, who pouched a leg glance off Johnson to end JP Duminy's innings on 43.
But Philander and Steyn were not going to fold quickly. Philander was the only South African who really played his shots throughout the final day, but rarely did he create a chance. Even more impressive was that he spent part of the innings battling a painful blow to his hand after an accidental beamer from Pattinson jammed him on the right glove. Another glove-related incident was to come.
Immediately before the final hour began, the Australians won an out decision from Aleem Dar when Johnson banged in a short ball that tickled Philander's thumb on the way to being caught, but Philander asked for a review. The third umpire, Richard Illingworth, felt there was enough evidence that Philander's hand was off the bat at the time when the ball struck his glove and overturned the decision, much to the dismay of the Australians, and things really heated up on the field after that.
Whatever Clarke tried did not seem to work. Philander and Steyn just batted on and on. The bowlers wearied, and sent down ball after ball that could be left alone. Until Clarke asked Harris to finish the job. Two wickets in three balls, both hitting the stumps. An emotional series win for Australia, whose summer ended with seven wins and one loss. A gut-wrenching loss for Smith in his final match.
But mostly, it was a fittingly tight way for the campaign to end. Australia had the better of the series, but South Africa made them earn it. It was not until the last five overs of the last hour of the last day of the last Test of the series that the outcome was determined. And if every Test series was like that, the game would be in pretty good shape.