Ball of contention: Australia gave South Africa a taste of their own medicine with their reverse swing during the first innings.

Ball of contention: Australia gave South Africa a taste of their own medicine with their reverse swing during the first innings. Photo: Getty Images

Cape Town, South Africa

It lacked the sledgehammer-like style of David Warner but the message from South Africa batsman Faf du Plessis was the same - how did the other team's bowlers get significantly more reverse-swing than his teammates had achieved?

Du Plessis survived for 135 balls on day three, more than double the tally any other of the Proteas' specialist batsmen, in top-scoring with 67 in their total of 287 in Cape Town as Ryan Harris (3-63) and Mitch Johnson (4-42) excelled.

South Africa's Faf du Plessis.

South Africa's Faf du Plessis. Photo: Reuters

The South African later explained not only how difficult it was to face the Australian pacemen during this period but how surprised he was at having to do so following his arrival to the crease in the 29th over.

"The first innings I think the pitch didn't rough it up," du Plessis said, about the first two days where South Africa's bowlers were unable to generate more than a hint of the reverse-swing they used so decisively in the second Test in Port Elizabeth.

"I must be honest, I was really surprised to see the ball reverse from their side. I think it was 27 overs when the ball started reversing - especially (surprising) after rain and a wet outfield," du Plessis said.

"I was really surprised by that, so ... let's leave it at that."

Du Plessis arrived immediately after a near-unplayable delivery from Harris that started well outside right-hander Hashim Amla's off-stump and viciously swung in late to clatter into his stumps. Du Plessis was almost dismissed for a golden duck by Harris' next delivery, pitched slightly shorter but which followed the same trajectory to narrowly miss the right-hander's inside-edge on its way through to Australia wicketkeeper Brad Haddin.

Johnson hailed the delivery Harris produced to remove Amla as "a Steyn-like delivery", in reference to South Africa paceman Dale Steyn's sharply hooping deliveries that got him the scalps of Haddin - twice - and Steve Smith in the second Test.

"It's always exciting when your teammate, your mate at the other end, does really well and can produce balls like that," he said.

Johnson said the ground conditions at Newlands on day three were conducive to reverse-swing, a factor he said made for "a different game" once it emerged.

"The wicket was abrasive enough to bowl cross-seam. I don't always hit the seam so I can hit that rough side, get it nice and rough and shine the other side," he said.

"Once we saw the ball wasn't swinging normally we did that straight away. We're not surprised that it went.

"It would have been a few overs, maybe six or seven. It was definitely something we'd been thinking about. We know the ball reverses here. It was rough enough on one side and shiny enough on the other - it was perfect."

Left-armer Johnson said he was rapt for the success of the battle-weary Harris, who came into the match fearing for his place after a series record of three wickets at an average of 74.33.

"I actually gave him a bit of stick because he came to training the day before (the match) and normally fast bowlers don't turn up to the optional session," he said.

"He works extremely hard and he was quite frustrated at the way he'd been bowling. We all thought he'd been bowling fine, but he's a perfectionist."

Johnson said he was impressed how stoically the 34-year-old coped with the knee surgery he has delayed for about three months in order to play in this series.

"You'll be sitting up in the viewing room while we're batting and he'll say 'Feel this', and it's a bit of bone in his knee. And it's like 'You're a freak to be able to able to keep going'," Johnson explained.

"He's mentally strong and physically strong and he definitely pushes others along – it puts your little niggles to the back of the room because if he can get through that then you should be able to get through anything as well.

"He should be an inspiration to fast-bowlers out there, and to up-and-coming fast bowlers as well."