AB de Villiers has defended his team-mates, whose nine wickets fell for 91 runs, leaving his contribution of 71 not out as the only score of significance on an otherwise humbling scorecard. While de Villiers conceded that "the deficit (of 189) looks really bad," he maintained that South Africa were "not far off," matching Australia's skill set and hoped they can pull off "something special," in the days to come.

"There were a couple of softies (dismissals) today but also some really good bowling," de Villiers said. "Australia had a really good intensity about them and they seemed to be clear with their plans. We could feel that they seemed to know what they were doing.

"But it's not all lost. Some guys looked really good out there and we just didn't convert. We just didn't cross that line today. If you cross that line with two batters out there, things change very quickly. We came up just short. The wicket is getting harder by the day and it won't be easy for them to bat out there tomorrow. It's up to us to make sure we have the right game plans in place. We are not out of it."

De Villiers' generous assessment did not reveal any secrets towards explaining his own ability but he put his own success down to good preparation. "I just felt really good leading up to this Test in the nets, did some really good things in the nets, and I felt confident going into the Test," he said. "You don't always feel that way in Test cricket. And I was very motivated to score some runs for the boys."

While the rest of the South African line-up struggled against movement from Mitchell Starc and spin from Nathan Lyon, de Villiers felt the hosts allowed Lyon, in particular, to gain the upper hand because they were unable to form partnerships. South Africa's highest stand was worth 42 runs - between de Villiers and Quitnon de Kock for the sixth wicket - and their lower order had no partnerships in double figures. Contrastingly, Australia's eight-wicket stand was worth 49 and their ninth-wicket pair put on 41, which helped take them past 350 in the first innings.

"Starc was swinging the ball one way and I felt I had him covered," de Villiers said. "He bowled a couple of good deliveries and there's not much you can do about that. Swing is one thing but when it's moving a bit off the deck, it's really difficult to cover that. Lyon did a really good job from the other end more often than not. We had him under pressure at times but kept losing wickets. That allowed him to bowl with more freedom."

As for South Africa's age-old problem against spin, de Villiers put some of that down to conditions, which he expects to become more difficult to bat on as the match goes on. "We play spin well but it didn't show today. I played spin well today," de Villiers joked. "There's no one with a flaw in their game when it comes to spin. Obviously the results don't say the same thing. Lyon is the top wicket-taker in the world for this season and he is bowling well. He is a confident guy. I don't think we played him badly. There's a bit of rough out there, it's a dryish Kingsmead surface, and he got a bit of assistance."

De Villiers was hopeful South Africa's attack could rescue the situation on the third day, as they chase an elusive Test series win over Australia at home. "We've got our work cut out tomorrow. But we still believe we can turn this around."