THE flame is about to flicker out for Australia's aspirations to be the official force of Test cricket. If there had been the faintest spark on Sunday morning, it has surely been stamped out by the ferocity and flair of Hashim Amla and A.B. de Villiers.
Their relentless hundreds allowed South Africa to set Australia a monumental 632 runs for victory in Perth, more than 200 in excess of the highest successful Test run chase and a figure not compiled by any team, anywhere in a fourth innings since England ground to 5-654 in the last timeless Test in 1939. After nine days of play over a dozen days then, that quest for 696 was abandoned for another priority – not missing the boat back home from Durban.
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Arthur: We have to believe
Australian cricket coach Mickey Arthur insists that the team has "to believe we can bat for two days and we've got to believe we can bat session for session".
Michael Clarke's men face no shortage of time, but barring a fully fledged miracle this ship has sailed. In fact, with two full days left in this third and deciding Test of the series it may as well be timeless. The issue is staying alive, the most distant of objectives even on a WACA Ground deck which Amla (196) and de Villiers (169) made appear like paradise for batsmen and a living hell for Australia's brand spanking new, but quickly worn and torn, bowlers. This series, to determine who remains or becomes world No.1 in Tests, has had dramatic undulations throughout, without result, but it would take the most extraordinary twist, not only of this summer but of all time, to avoid the inevitable here.
Australia, funnily enough, took 20 wickets in a match for the first time in the series in Perth, finally knocking over South Africa for 569 late on Sunday. That was only minimal consolation, however, on a third day in which Amla and de Villiers dominated. David Warner (29 not out) and Ed Cowan (9no) at least survived a dangerous 13-over period before stumps, though, to keep Australia at a spotless 0-40, and coach Mickey Arthur insisted all hope was not lost.
"We bat for two days we win," Arthur said. "We've got to believe we can do it. If we don't believe we can do it there is no point in rocking up tomorrow. The approach you take is batting session for session. You can't get ahead of yourself. A couple of big partnerships and you never know what might happen."
Arthur said Australia's batsmen had "let our bowling unit down" on Saturday. "As a batting unit to be all out for 163 wasn't good enough. It's always the bowlers that end up getting caned but if we had got ourselves a 70- or 80-run lead like we had planned, the bowlers would have bowled with a different pressure."
De Villiers, the hero for South Africa at the WACA Ground four years ago, reprised his starring role and toyed with Australia to bring up a 14th Test century with a remarkable three reverse sweeps in a row off off-spinner Nathan Lyon. Amla's mighty ton, almost a double, was the centrepiece of the wrecking job done on Clarke's bowlers but de Villiers took the cake for sheer cheek. The reverse sweep is cricket's rock star shot, and the wicketkeeper-batsman certainly enjoys the stage.
There was occasional light entertainment to break the trend of rampant run-scoring. Ponting, brought on to bowl his modest mediums for the last time in a Test, even tossed up a bouncer that drew laughs. And in another deviation, which the batsman would not see as funny, Dean Elgar became only the 38th player to register a pair on debut.
South African quick Morne Morkel rolled his ankle in a foot-hole late on Sunday but kept bowling. "We're hoping [the wicket] will break up a bit over the next few days," de Villiers said. "There are a couple of cracks opening up but it is a good wicket, and we're aware of the fact that if we go the full length of the Test match they'll come quite close . . . We know Australia won't be giving it away."