At Perth, November 30-December 3, 2012. South Africa won by 309 runs. Toss: South Africa. Test debuts: J. W. Hastings; D. Elgar.
South Africa consolidated their grip on top spot in the rankings with an overwhelming victory on a ground where they had drawn and won their only previous Tests - and looked very much at home. It made a poignant backdrop for the farewell of Ricky Ponting, who had done so much to establish the period of Australian dominance, then over the last three years seen it chipped away.
At a press conference after training on the eve of the game, he announced his 168th Test - equalling Steve Waugh's Australian record - would be his last: there was little notice, little fanfare and no theatre, as Ponting characteristically deferred all questions about his career until after the match, lest he disrupt the team's preparation. Many in the audience who had been urging him to go sat there faintly stunned that he was now in fact going - and at the venue where he had made his Test debut 17 years earlier. But going he was, and for much of the first day it appeared as though it would be on a high.
The Australians fielded a wholly new pace attack. Siddle and Hilfenhaus had bowled themselves into the ground at Adelaide, while the young back-up seamer Josh Hazlewood was discovered during his preamble to the Test to have stress fractures of the foot. That led to the selection of Victorian debutant John Hastings as an upwind complement to the recalled left-arm duo of Mitchell Starc and Mitchell Johnson, back for his first Test in a year.
And this attack actually appeared more than up to the task when it quickly reduced the South Africans, for whom Peterson and the debutant Dean Elgar had replaced Imran Tahir and Jacques Rudolph, to 75 for 6 soon after lunch. The openers had been separated after an hour by Watson, fit again and displacing the unlucky Rob Quiney, and no further resistance was encountered until du Plessis once more draped himself across the pitch like an iron curtain, remaining undefeated for 195 minutes. The tail's resilience, and two early wickets, gave South Africa a little share of the spoils before the close.
The second day was of a character almost unique in the memory: Australia were outclassed and overwhelmed in every category of the game. Their batsmen were cowed by Steyn, Morkel and Philander, their tail sucked in by Peterson, and their bowlers towelled up by Smith and Amla, who piled Pelion on Ossa with a partnership of 178 in 153 balls. Only a spectacular catch by Lyon at backward square leg to remove Smith curbed the mayhem.
The dismissal of Warner, playing a wild slash, began the Australian capitulation; equally wild and demoralised bowling without a semblance of plan completed it. Ponting saw events for what they were: South Africa were trying on the mantle earned in England, a champion team choosing to play like it. "That was them trying to impose themselves on the series, and they did it better than I have seen any team take a game away from the opposition before," he said later. "A lot of the other teams we have played over the years who have been in that position have been too scared to do that." Smith agreed, calling it "one of the highlights of South African cricket".
On the third day, they were nearly as dominant again. Amla produced his finest innings of the tour, superbly organised and paced as always, but audacious too, manufacturing strokes, manipulating fields and generally running the show. He came down the wicket to the seamers, worked Lyon to leg from outside off, and found unguarded areas square and fine. He was four runs from a double-century after 220 balls when - startlingly - he offered Johnson a return catch, and it was brilliantly taken.
With de Villiers, Amla had gone into harness for a serene stand of 149; de Villiers then knocked up a helter-skelter 102 in 85 deliveries with du Plessis, moving to a 14th Test century - his first as South Africa's keeper - with three exquisite consecutive reverse-sweeps from Lyon. He finished with 169 from 184 balls, 36 fewer than it had taken him to score 33 at Adelaide a week earlier. Starc and Johnson shared the wickets, rewards for perseverance and pace respectively; Johnson twice overwhelmed Elgar with sheer speed, inflicting on him an ignominious pair. It was the first time two bowlers with the same first name had ever taken all ten wickets in a Test innings.
Set a monstrous 632, Australia negotiated a gruelling final hour, in which outside edges were singed and arms flung about in arrested celebration as South Africa's quicks again found bounce and sideways movement. But Warner was gone first thing on the fourth morning, and only Cowan set a real price on his wicket, before falling to the hook. The moment everyone had waited for, Ponting's final Test innings, commenced with his welcome by a guard of honour formed by Smith. He hit a pull and an on-drive, both for four, then nicked off to slip, pausing just before the players' entrance to swivel 360 degrees and take in the whole ground. The last pair showed how little was wrong with the conditions by putting together 87 in 75 balls, slightly spoiling the figures of Peterson, whose match analysis of six for 171 was useful given the venue's reputation for being inimical to slow bowling.
So ended the Australian push to recapture the No. 1 spot in Test cricket. So ended the first home series since 2001-02 in which Australia had not won a Test. So ended one of the most distinguished of all Australian cricket careers. In a dignified press conference after the close, Ponting confessed he had been "more nervous this game than any other game I've played", but that he "just felt there was one last big push from me", and that it "would've been nice to have a few next to my name coming off". He confessed the guard of honour had taken him by surprise: "Graeme's gesture and the South African team's gesture, that sort of stuff will remain with me for ever, and I told him that on the field today." There should have been no surprise, and Smith spoke for many when he said: "Having played against Ricky so much over the years, he's certainly the player I respect most."
Man of the Match: H. M. Amla.
Man of the Series: M. J. Clarke.
Close of play: first day, Australia 33-2 (Warner 12, Lyon 7); second day, South Africa 230-2 (Amla 99, Kallis 17); third day, Australia 40-0 (Cowan 9, Warner 29).