Long way to go … Ed Cowan unleashes a drive during the third day of the first Test as Australia tried to answer South Africa's first-innings total of 450. Photo: Getty Images

ON A lamentable day for Australia, at least one disaster was averted.

Just before stumps on day three of the first Test at the Gabba, the outstretched arm of umpire Asad Rauf signalled that opener Ed Cowan had been saved by a front foot no-ball from fast bowler Morne Morkel. The infringement also saved Australia from further devastation after South Africa's fancied quicks all but wiped out the top order.

The towering Proteas paceman is a serial offender; his over-stepping has cost him a wicket on half a dozen occasions in his career.

This time, the South Africans launched a loud appeal against Cowan for caught behind in the penultimate over of play. The plea was turned down by Rauf, but the fielding team called for a decision review. The first order of business is to check the position of the bowler's front boot, and none of Morkel's heel was behind the line.

South Africa's dismay deepened when Hot Spot showed the ball kissing Cowan's glove on its way to wicketkeeper AB de Villiers.

Thanks to Morkel's untidy footwork, Cowan survived two hours of hostile bowling from the best attack in the world to be 49 not out at stumps. The innings could yet define his career. His captain, Michael Clarke, was unbeaten on 34 and the pair will resume Australia's fight to save the first Test on day four at 3-111.

''The umpire is a lot closer than I am so if he calls a no ball it must be a no ball,'' said Jacques Kallis of Cowan's reprieve, having earlier scored his 44th Test century. ''I suppose the key is to get half a foot behind the line, not to get too close.''

Despite the resistance of Cowan and Clarke, Australia faces a monumental task. The tourists' first innings, powered by centuries from Kallis and Hashim Amla, was finally snuffed out for 450. Dale Steyn, bruised but unbowed after Australia's quicks tried to bounce out the South African tail, combined with Morkel to tear through the home side's top order just as captain Graeme Smith had promised they would.

Cowan stood firm, while swivelling into decisive pull shots when the quicks dropped short, but the Australians collapsed to 3-40 in the 10th over when ageing champion Ricky Ponting was conquered for a duck.

David Warner, debutant Rob Quiney and Ponting all succumbed within an hour, and Steyn lived up to his reputation as the best fast bowler on the planet. He silenced the combative Warner with an angled ball that took the edge and was devoured by Kallis at second slip.

The Australians were reaching when they said Steyn didn't like bowling to left-handers, but closer to the mark when they said it was hard to pin-point his weaknesses.

That point was reinforced with Steyn's acrobatics on the boundary rope at fine leg to end Quiney's maiden Test innings on nine. It was a short but fearless innings from the affable Victorian, who had been a valiant contributor on a tough day in the field. He'd moonlighted for Shane Watson with seven tight overs, and taken a couple of tough catches, when he walked to the middle in the fifth over to confront Steyn.

The first ball was short, and Quiney pulled it from in front of his nose for two. The second he edged through the slips for his first boundary.

Then, facing Morkel, Quiney pulled again. This one was headed for six but Steyn caught it and tossed it back to himself, thinking he was about to topple over the boundary rope.

When he completed the catch Steyn raised his finger towards the Gabba crowd to celebrate.

Ponting, coming into the Test summer with a domestic average of 188 for Tasmania this summer, lasted just five balls from Morkel. He, too, was caught in the slips by Kallis, the South African all-rounder's safe hands complementing his big innings of 147.

South Africa looked set for an even more epic stay before a fightback from the Australian bowlers. Amla stroked to 104 before Peter Siddle thudded one into his pads, and after a chat with Kallis opted against a review. It turned out the ball would have cleared the stumps.

''I said to him that height could have been an issue there and he felt, no, it wasn't,'' Kallis said.

''It's a tough one to call, maybe I could have said to him just refer it. Maybe I can take a little bit of blame for that as well.''

The Australians hit a better length than on day one but looked tame compared with their South African counterparts. James Pattinson added Kallis and the dangerous de Villiers to his collection but both were a result of great catches rather than great balls.

Siddle was tireless, as always, while Ben Hilfenhaus fought back to finish off the innings with the wickets of Steyn and Morkel. He thumped Steyn on the shoulder, and can expect a couple of bouncers to come back at him when it's the Tasmanian's turn to bat.

With a full day lost to rain, Kallis is adamant two days is enough to bowl Australia out twice. ''This game is far from dead and there's enough in the wicket,'' he said. ''If Aus plays well, fair enough, but we've got to give ourselves an opportunity.''