AB de Villiers was the key man for South Africa with a match-winning 106
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AB de Villiers erased a lingering hoodoo for South Africa as they sealed their most satisfying win with a record-breaking chase of 4 for 414 that buried Australia. Since coming back into the international arena in the early 1990s, South Africa have had the most trouble with Australia and finally conquered them, with de Villiers fighting to 106 and Jacques Kallis and the debutant JP Duminy producing nerveless half-centuries.
In a thrilling and stomach-turning adventure in the top-of-the-table contest, South Africa registered the second-biggest successful pursuit in history and did it so comfortably that they could have got 500. Australia's only answer was Mitchell Johnson, who took a career-best 11 for 159, but the rest of the performance was as worrying as South Africa's was outstanding.
Graeme Smith, who set up the chase with 108, watched his team drop the hosts to 3 for 15 on the opening morning, but it was not ahead again until after lunch on the final day. It has been like a handicap sprint race, with the runners not coming together until the final ten metres. South Africa finished with more than their chests in front to capture an invaluable 1-0 lead in the three-match series, which resumes in Melbourne on Boxing Day.
Smith helped reduce the original target to 187 for the final day and de Villiers and Kallis chipped away at it during a gripping 124-run stand that dented the Australians. de Villiers' then grabbed Duminy, who hit the winning runs to finish on 50 not out, and together they took care of the next 111. At the finish, when Duminy pushed a three through cover, he jumped as high as the whole team felt.
Australia's senior players had grown increasingly annoyed at the situation, but Peter Siddle and Jason Krejza are not Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath. Brett Lee does not even seem like the same man. This is a devastating defeat and continues their slide in 2008. If they lose this series their rating as the world's No. 1 will be as misleading as presents being the meaning of Christmas.
There was little to cheer on the final day for Australia. In South Africa the supporters deserve to be delirious. Their team has fought and scrapped and succeeded in a way that was unimaginable, against an outfit which has tormented them for years. Nervous but committed, the players tried not to give away their mood, but when 52 was required there was even a smile in the dressing room from Smith. Those who expected late shocks - of course we did - were disappointed as de Villiers and Duminy showed an assurance that was missing in the country's previous failures.
Singles came at will throughout the day, risky shots were barely needed, and there was little danger of being caught in the slips, mainly because Ricky Ponting wasn't really bothering with them. After lunch, with 92 needed, Siddle and Krejza were brought on while Johnson and Lee fielded. The main men, the only ones capable of hurrying the batsmen, were resting. Like sponsorship commitments, player workloads are now apparently too severe on the field as well.
de Villiers, who survived some shaky moments, showed he would not be an easy wicket in the first session and assumed the main responsibilities following Kallis' departure half an hour before lunch. In tense times neither de Villiers nor Duminy, experiencing the most severe pressure on debut, showed the strain.
A frustrated Ponting, whose arms were often crossed, kicked at the ground following a play and miss from de Villiers. More muttering, cursing and spitting came as they headed to defeat. Australia were bowling when West Indies scored 418 in the fourth innings in 2002-03, but there was energy in the field that day. This team expects things to happen that can't.
de Villiers could have been run-out on 18, edged short of Brad Haddin off Siddle in the first session and survived again shortly after lunch. Lee had a chance to catch him on 67, but it sped through his raised hands and went for four to mid-on. Fortune is needed to succeed in a chase like this; in the field the Australians considered themselves unlucky.
Johnson was again Australia's major weapon and collected his 11th victim of an outstanding game when he picked up Kallis, who was amazingly solid and constructive during his 57. While Johnson captured 3 for 98, Lee had 1 for 73 and there were no other contributors.
As Kallis left slowly after a wide drive, there were feelings that it could be the end of South Africa's charge. There were still more than 100 runs to go and the rock had departed. de Villiers and Duminy kept the dream alive, with de Villiers picking gaps for ones and twos, and cutting hard for his fours.
Duminy milked the bowlers like a veteran instead of a novice. He might be one of those players who experiences his career highlight in his opening game. While Duminy left an exciting mark, it was the effort of de Villiers that sealed the success.
A 24-year-old with a mind clear of chaotic defeats and tortuous failures, he sailed South Africa through the trouble and picked up his seventh century with a pull for four off Johnson. By this point there were only happy faces in the dressing room, for not even the old South Africa could lose from here. Twelve runs later the new model had beaten Australia in a tight game. It's true.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo