At Perth, December 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 2008. South Africa won by six wickets. Toss: Australia. Test debut: JP Duminy

The first great irony was that in a match seemingly destined to be a tale of two tails, South Africa didn't need theirs to achieve the second-biggest successful run-chase in Test history. The second irony was that Australia, after recovering from the perilous position of 15 for three on the first morning, controlled the game for the best part of four days, but lost.

Much would be made of the Australian bowlers' inability to take 20 wickets, but in his withering post-game review Ponting did not spare the senior batsmen, who in both innings were bailed out by the lower order, resulting in respectable totals of 375 and 319. It was nowhere near enough, given the impotence of the attack carried bravely by Johnson and the unwavering belief instilled in South Africa over a successful year of Test cricket.

That belief was personified by two 24-year-olds who came together at 303 for four on the fifth morning, within touching distance of the target of 414 yet also far enough away to feel the tremors of South Africa's painful past failures against Australia.

Jean-Paul Duminy was a last-minute replacement for Ashwell Prince, whose thumb was broken by Ntini in the nets on the eve of the Test. Duminy wore a diamond earring like his hero Herschelle Gibbs, but there was nothing too flashy about his batting, which was composed and confident. De Villiers was a bundle of energy whose brilliant catching helped tame Australia's batsmen, and who returned to his hotel room with 11 not out on the penultimate evening feeling tense. "I was really nervous and shaking, and I thought, I've got a massive mountain to climb tomorrow."

Smith, meanwhile, went to bed feeling satisfied and relieved. Satisfied that he had scaled his own mountain, reaching his first century in nine Tests against Australia, and relieved that his dismissal to Johnson for 108 had not precipitated a repeat of the wreckage wrought by the left-armer in the first innings. Still, there were 242 runs still to be made when he was out, and the captain dared not dream of victory.

After Johnson's heroic spell of five for two in 21 balls on the second evening, the South Africans had been stuck in a nightmare. Tearing in from the Lillee-Marsh End, he used express pace and subtle reverse swing to reduce the visitors from 234 for three to 241 for eight, and was lifted when he heard the parochial crowd in his recently adopted state embrace him. Johnson wiped out the tail with a brutal bouncer at Steyn's body next morning, giving Australia what should have been a decisive first-innings lead, his eight for 61 - the best figures by a left-arm fast bowler in any Test - the sort of performance to define a match and perhaps a series.

South Africa, though, set the tone for the rest of the series by refusing to surrender. The Australian top order was again subdued, and slipped to 88 for four after Hayden's struggles were compounded by a lamentable decision from umpire Aleem Dar, who later apologised for giving him out caught and bowled off his pad. The resilience of the tail in support of Haddin, who struck four clean sixes before he was seduced by Harris and stumped for 94, resulted in an intimidating target, the size of which only West Indies had previously achieved, against Australia in Antigua in 2002-03.

Over the next 119.2 overs, the extent of Australia's decline would be revealed, and South Africa would write a new chapter in their history. Smith led from the front, putting his aching elbow out of mind to strike 13 bruising fours, pass 6,000 career runs and complete his sixth Test century of the year. Lee summoned some fire to remove Amla before stumps, but was capable only of sporadic bursts before he ran out of puff, the legacy of an illness suffered in India. Youngsters Krejza and Siddle were each short of experience and match-fitness, and Ponting could not turn to his allrounder Symonds, who was hobbling on a sore knee.

Johnson became his captain's go-to man in increasingly frequent moments of distress, but even he could not carry his country's fortunes on his golden left arm. He claimed 11 of the 14 South African wickets to fall, including the only one Australia could manage on the last day on a pitch prone to uneven bounce. While de Villiers and Duminy collected the remaining runs with the minimum of fuss, a grim-faced Ponting could be seen with hands on hips, and he was roundly criticised for his negative body language in the days that followed. As South Africa celebrated their finest win of the post-apartheid era, one Australian newspaper dubbed Ponting "Captain Pout".

Man of the Match: AB de Villiers