Battling on: Australia's Ed Cowan hits out during his innings yesterday.

Battling on: Australia's Ed Cowan hits out during his innings yesterday. Photo: Reuters

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 reportedly cost him a wicket half a dozen times in his career.

No ball: Morne Morkel appeals for the wicket of Ed Cowan (left).

No ball: Morne Morkel appeals for the wicket of Ed Cowan (left). Photo: Getty Images

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 review under DRS. 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 A.B. 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.

Dale Steyn celebrates the wicket of David Warner.

Dale Steyn celebrates the wicket of David Warner. Photo: Getty Images

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 top order just as captain Graeme Smith had promised they would.

''It wasn't ideal, let's be honest,''

paceman Ben Hilfenhaus said of the poor start to Australia's innings.

''But I guess the partnership that we've got going at the moment is a crucial one for us. Hopefully they can continue that tomorrow and make our way closer to their total.''

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

Ponting came into the series with a domestic average of 188 for Tasmania, but this time last year, in South Africa, the Proteas almost ended his career. At 38 next month, the former captain knows it won't take many failures to put his career on the line again.

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 fearless and entertaining nine from the Victorian, who had been a valiant contributor in the field. He had moonlighted for Shane Watson with 10 tight overs, and taken a couple of tough catches, when he walked out in the fifth over.

Steyn's 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 rope. When he completed the catch, Steyn raised his finger towards the Gabba crowd, which applauded despite Quiney's demise.

Ponting 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 bigger first-innings total before a fightback from the Australian bowlers.

Amla had moved to 104 before Peter Siddle thudded one into his pads. After a chat with batting partner Kallis, they opted against a review. It turned out the ball would have cleared the stumps.

THE STATE OF PLAY

RESUMPTION: South Africa 2-255 after 82 overs (Amla 90, Kallis 84)

LUNCH: South Africa 3-357 after 120 overs (Kallis 137, de Villiers 32)

TEA: South Africa 7-434 after 148 overs (Steyn 15, Kleinveldt 1)

STUMPS:Australia 3-111 after 26 overs (Cowan 49, Clarke 34)

THE NUMBERS

165 The partnership between Amla and Kallis reached 165 and it would have been more if Kallis hadn't sold out his partner by telling him not to bother challenging the decision. It was a record stand for Australia-South Africa Tests at the Gabba, surpassing the 163-run partnership between Don Bradman and Bill Woodfull in 1931-32. The lack of competition for record Gabba partnerships in matches between these two sides is not surprising; this is South Africa's first appearance in a Brisbane Test in the post-apartheid era.

791 There's little doubt Amla is the outstanding batsman in the world at this moment, and he made it official (albeit only briefly) when he eclipsed Michael Clarke as the leading runscorer in the world in 2012. The South African No. 3's 791 runs have come at an average of 79.10 in eight Tests including his recent sublime triple century against England. He's now scored centuries in three consecutive Tests against Australia. But his reign was short-lived with Clarke (816) overtaking him late on Sunday, and with Kallis (752) and Kevin Pietersen (715) also all within striking distance of finishing the calendar year as leading runscorer.

15.97 The average carried into the series by Vernon Philander, who has a reputation for strangling batsmen with his slippery swing bowling. The late bloomer came onto the international scene against Australia in South Africa last November and made an ominous start with the new ball in Brisbane, beating the bat of David Warner with his first two balls.

KEY BATSMAN

Nothing stokes an argument about who is the best all-rounder in history like a 44th Test century. Kallis' 147 - his 5th ton against Australia - was calm and efficient. His 14 fours were scored all around the wicket, and a six heaved over mid-wicket off Nathan Lyon on day one. Fans of the great West Indies all-rounder Garry Sobers say he dominated attacks in a way the introverted South African does not. Interestingly, Kallis' strike rate for the innings (53.64) was superior to all his teammates other than hard-hitting tailender Rory Kleinveldt.

KEY BOWLER

Ben Hilfenhaus is the workhorse of the Australian attack and it's well known he is short of a gallop, having played just one first-class game leading into the series. Though he has looked down on pace in Brisbane, and not as threatening as when he took a series-high 27 wickets against India last summer, he fought back to claim the late wickets of Steyn and Morkel, and landed a painful blow on Steyn's bowling shoulder. He finished with respectable figures of 2-73 from 32.4 overs.

PLAY OF THE DAY

Rob Quiney had to wait almost three days to face his first ball in Test cricket and when it came he saw it beautifully. The shine hadn't gone from the ball by the time Quiney strode to the middle in the 5th over of the innings to confront the best bowler in the world. Dale Steyn fired in a short ball and Quiney rocked into a pull shot, which would have been four if not for a diving save on the rope at square leg. The Victorian ran two to open his Test run tally.