Test matches (3): Australia 0, South Africa 1

Graeme Smith's South Africans took the field at the Gabba for the first Test in unprecedented circumstances: it was the first time since the introduction of the ICC rankings in 2003 that they had begun a Test as the world's No. 1 team. During a fleeting previous stint at the top in 2009 they had not played a single game. Now, Smith's men had ceased to be the hunter, and become the hunted.

In fact, had Australia taken the series, they would have replaced South Africa - and, for long periods of this three-Test series, this was the outcome that appeared likeliest. In the way they came through difficult phases at Brisbane and Adelaide, and finally asserted pre-eminence at Perth, the South Africans proved themselves worthy holders of the ICC mace.

As often happens now, the blind giant of injury cleaved a path through the series and shaped its outcome. The Australians' loss of James Pattinson in his tenth over at Adelaide had long-term repercussions: not only were they a bowler short as they tried to prise loose the last remaining batsmen on the final day, but the workloads shouldered by Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus invalided them out of the Test at the WACA soon after, where a callow replacement attack was put to the sword.

South Africa's most serious injury, by contrast, turned out to be a happy accident. It befell JP Duminy as he performed a fitness circuit on the Gabba outfield at the end of the first day, and ruptured an Achilles tendon. That provided an opportunity for Faf du Plessis, hitherto regarded as a one-day workhorse, and so inconspicuous that Mark Nicholas wrote a column for ESPNcricinfo saying South Africa had "no specialist batsman in reserve".

In fact, there can hardly have been a more impressive Test debut in history: du Plessis batted almost two full days under acute pressure, like a cowboy with a pair of six-guns backing out of a saloon full of itchy-fingered desperados. It was thanks chiefly to his 78 and 101 not out from a total of 535 balls that South Africa were able to go to Perth all square. There, after a shared first day, they flicked on the afterburners, and it was only because of a hearty last-wicket stand that Australia reduced the margin of defeat to 309 runs. Following their successful tour four years earlier, Smith's team had become the first to win consecutive Test series in Australia since West Indies, in 1988-89 and 1992-93.

On a man-for-man basis, 1-0 was a fair reflection, especially of the sides' respective top threes. For South Africa, Smith batted and led well; Alviro Petersen wasted several starts, but was a fluent partner; Hashim Amla made contrasting centuries, both exquisite. For Australia, Ed Cowan and David Warner both made hundreds, but also exhibited frailties; the Victorian Rob Quiney, who usually opens the batting, was drafted in at No. 3 as a kind of crash-test dummy - the selectors were loath to recall Phillip Hughes too soon - and perhaps inevitably failed. Shane Watson resumed in Perth after one of his many injuries, but to little avail, and the contrast with Jacques Kallis was telling: unlike Watson, who seems to exist in terror of his body's susceptibilities, Kallis ploughed on regardless of an injury in Adelaide that prevented him from bowling; he batted and caught superbly.

South Africa's bowlers had some wretched days. They did not take a wicket for 120 overs at Brisbane, and gave up almost a run a ball on the first day at Adelaide. Imran Tahir's one appearance was calamitous; Rory Kleinveldt's two gradually improved, but from a low base; Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander went through merely steady phases. But at Perth the last three were explosive, and the slow left-armers of Robin Peterson benefited from batsmen trying to escape the general encirclement. They also caught well, ten chances settling in Smith's hands like birds descending on a nest. AB de Villiers' keeping was sure, though it meant his athleticism was missed in the field, and his batting form returned with a vengeance at Perth, where his 169 reversed over bowlers already flattened by Smith and Amla.

For Australia, Michael Clarke, who emulated Don Bradman and Wally Hammond by scoring two double-hundreds in a series for a second time, was superb, his neatness and composure at the crease augmented by an amazing weight of shot in such a slight figure. He took five fours off an over from Morkel at Adelaide, including one - on the up and down the ground - he could not have played two years ago; he was untiring at the crease, and often seemed to walk straight from a long entrenchment into a boundary-side interview with Channel Nine, pausing only to swap his baggy green for a sponsors' cap, like the model modern professional. Hussey was reliability personified, and made two free-flowing hundreds as Clarke's escort. There was also a feeling, however, that Australia's leadership came from behind, with the most reliable components of their batting hidden at Nos. 5 and 6.

That was exacerbated by the precipitous decline of Ricky Ponting, who made only 32 runs in five innings - after a prolific beginning to the first-class season for Tasmania. Having nicked off at the Gabba, he was twice bowled at Adelaide, stumbling over a full ball from Kallis, then dragging on an innocuous delivery from Kleinveldt, whereupon he found he no longer had the reserves of resilience to continue. He made the Test at Perth his last, in the course of which he saw up close the growing gap between South Africa and their competition, and witnessed the final interment of the remains of Australia's great period of dominance - of which he had been a personification.

He was welcomed to the crease by a guard of honour formed by Smith, then in the WACA's ersatz gymnasium hosted a final press conference that was moving in its understatement and modesty. Ponting explained he had been full of hope for the series, down to the final innings: "I just felt there was one last big push from me, and the game and the day was set up for it, and it didn't last long enough." He could have been speaking for the entire team.