Winds of change blow over South Africa

In the face of adversity, South Africa bounced back after a horror first day to complete one of the best comebacks in Test history AFP

In the summer, Perth suffers from extreme heat but there's a doctor to cure it. The Fremantle Doctor. The wind that blows from the nearby coast cools down the surrounding suburbs, but at a cost. It sends beach-goers away and ruins barbecues, and for those having a jog on the Swan River bank, it presents a challenge similar to the one South Africa experienced at the WACA over the last five days: the challenge of being pushed back while trying to push forward before ultimately prevailing.

Faf du Plessis described it as one "one of the most special experiences" he has been involved in. "To turn around 360 degrees from day one when we were under the pump and under a lot of pressure, day two was one of the best days of cricket I have been involved in," he said.

South Africa's problems started before the first day, even before they even reached Perth. AB de Villiers was ruled out of the series a month before it began, which robbed them of their captain and their best batsman. If anyone thought that was a blessing in disguise, they wouldn't have dared to do anything other than whisper it. Even though Faf du Plessis' leadership credentials were lauded after the 5-0 whitewash of Australia in the home ODIs and JP Duminy was starting to show signs of form, South Africa without de Villiers is a braai without the boerewors.

South Africa had almost the same team as the one that lost in India and against England at home, but were different from the side they had become since Australia last saw them. That's not even taking into account Graeme Smith's retirement, which took place almost three years ago. It sometimes seems like South Africa are yet to recover from it. They had not found an opener with Smith's sheer and consistent bloody-mindedness, at least not until day three.

The pressure on Hashim Amla is also taking its toll. This is the first time in a decade that Amla had contributed just one run to a team effort. If there is a sign that winds of change were starting to blow in South Africa's batting line-up, that is the strongest one.

In the first innings, South Africa were blown away for 242 but the knowledge that 225 was enough four years ago would have given South Africa something to work with, even when David Warner made it look as though 600 would not be enough. The only time doubt might have swirled in their mind would have been 42 minutes before lunch on the second day when Dale Steyn went down clutching his shoulder with a look that said his Test series was over.

Never mind the wider consequences of Steyn's injury - and those will be felt over the next six months - in that moment, it meant South Africa's head-wind had become a solid barrier. With two frontline seamers and a left-arm spinner on debut, South Africa had to take nine wickets and ensure Australia did not get too far ahead. Then, they would have to take ten more. The only person looking forward to figuring out how to make that work was du Plessis.

"There was a lot of emotion of [knowing] it's going to be really tough to get a victory from here. To have a seamer down the whole Test match and do what we've done - we always joke that if you lose a seamer in a three-seamer attack, its 99% impossible to win the Test because there's just too much of a workload. But it's a nice challenge. I enjoy strategic challenges where you can test yourself and do things a little bit out of the box," du Plessis said.

Steyn had already got some reverse swing. Du Plessis was sure Rabada and Philander could exploit that but he needed an older ball. For that, he needed other bowlers and Maharaj was his man. "He relentlessly bowled in a good area and made sure we could rotate guys. There was a period of dead cricket. We knew Vernon and KG [Rabada] weren't going to bowl much so it was a process of getting there. That time in between getting the ball to reverse was the time to completely kill the game and that was Keshav. That allowed us to play around with our bowlers and luckily, the bowlers stepped up and we got the wickets."

Within two sessions, South Africa had escaped the eye of the storm. It's little wonder that Steyn was shooting the breeze that night, walking the streets of Perth, fresh off a train journey from visiting his father's brother, who lives 40 minutes outside the city. His father had made the trip this time, to visit his sibling and watch his son. He only really got to do the former.

Steyn was in pain and held his right arm at ninety degrees to protect it from excess movement. He was resigned to his fate, disappointed. Several people stopped to ask Steyn for selfies and he obliged every one. He flew out of Perth on Sunday night and landed home just in time to watch the last wicket.

"Massive effort," Steyn tweeted, the same words he used to describe JP Duminy and Dean Elgar's hundreds which allowed South Africa to direct the gusts Australia's way. Then, they just copied what they did in 2012, almost to script. A big partnership put the target beyond Australia's reach and the declaration came with more than enough time to bowl them out again, even though Australia showed a lot more resistance.

Rabada's fitness was the hallmark of their second-innings triumph. He bowled two eight-over spells on the fourth day and an opening spell of six overs on the fifth morning. Du Plessis could not get the ball out of his hand, except to give it to to Temba Bavuma, who is emerging as a cult hero in this country. "He could have a three-for," du Plessis reminded us.

Ultimately, it was Bavuma who was the microcosm of South Africa's performance. In the face of adversity as stiff as the Fremantle doctor, they needed each other and when they gave all they had, they reclaimed Perth and the wind stopped blowing.