Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here
In the end, the best team won. Not the team that played best in Brisbane or Adelaide. But unquestionably the team that dictated proceedings in Perth, and the team that before this series started, and after it ended, were ranked No.1 in the world. The gap between South Africa and Australia may not be enormous, but over the past few days at the WACA, Graeme Smith's men showed Michael Clarke's players why they have reached the top.
By owning the second day of this grand final, South Africa owned the series, and the Test championship mace that went with it. By dismissing the Australians for 163 on a good batting pitch, Dale Steyn and his colleagues made the previous 11 days of the series irrelevant. Australia were four wickets from victory at the Gabba, but would South Africa have played the same way if the second day hadn't been washed out? The hosts were two wickets from a win in Adelaide, but South Africa were good enough to deny them.
And when the Australians had to dig themselves out of a hole in Perth, they were unable to. The bowlers found the going tough as the South Africans piled up 565 in the second innings, but the damage was done when Australia had batted. In defeat, Australia's captain Michael Clarke conceded that his side had failed to make use of the upper hand they held so often in the series.
"I don't want to take anything away from South Africa," Clarke said. "They showed why they're the No.1 Test team in the world. On the other hand I want to pay credit to the Australian boys to be able to fight it out so tough and stay strong up until this Test match. What South Africa showed us is when they had momentum, they ran with it for as long as they possibly could and when they didn't have [it], they did everything in their power to fight their backsides off to try and grab it back.
"There's probably a few occasions throughout the series where we had momentum and didn't run with it for long enough, that's for sure. Against these teams, the best teams, you can't afford to do that … There's plenty of pros and cons and that's something we need to do over the next few days, to assess where we continue to improve and the positives we can take from this series, the areas we need to get better if we want to be the No.1 team in the world."
One of those areas is glaringly obvious. The failure of Australia's top three to provide consistently strong starts is becoming a major problem. In this series, Australia's totals at three wickets down were 40, 55, 91, 34 and 102. That makes life tough for the middle order, and for the bowlers who must then keep the opposition in check in the same way. At the WACA, that was too much to ask of an attack featuring Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Johnson, debutant John Hastings and Nathan Lyon.
"I don't want to take anything away from the Australian bowlers, I thought they bowled really well in the first innings and tried their backside off on a flat wicket in the second innings," Clarke said. "I believe the reason we didn't give ourselves the best chance of winning this Test match is because of the way we batted in our first innings."
The missed opportunity to reclaim the No.1 Test ranking hurt the Australians even more given they wanted to provide Ricky Ponting with a fitting send-off. The challenge for Clarke and Australia's coach Mickey Arthur is now to move on to the Sri Lankan series that begins next week, and to find inspiration without their most capped player being part of the setup.
"It's been a tough week, that's for sure," Clarke said. "I still don't think it's hit the players fully yet. I think it will come the first Test against Sri Lanka when we walk out on the field and see he's not there. It's not just about what he does on the field, it's also off the field, around training sessions, in the change-room, his help, advice, guidance, is something that can't be replaced."
Like Clarke, Ponting endured a series loss to South Africa at home when he was captain. Four years ago, Smith's men chased down 414 in Perth, one of Test cricket's most epic achievements, and it set up their winning tour. Within a year, they were the No.1 team in the world. Another Perth triumph has kept them there.