Australia became the first side to beat South Africa in a Test series in five years.

On the up: Australia became the first side to beat South Africa in a Test series in five years. Photo: AFP

The rankings don't say it yet, but Australia deserves to be considered the best team in the world in the same way Mark Taylor's Australians became unofficial world champions by toppling the mighty West Indies away from home in 1995.

That is the view of Taylor, who woke in the early hours of Thursday morning in time to see a wounded, heroic Ryan Harris - dosed up on Panadeine Forte and with one knee in desperate need of surgery - take the last two South African wickets to seal a famous series win over the world No.1 with less than five overs left in the game.

''If you go back to my era, before the rankings existed, we always felt if you beat the No.1 in their own backyard you took over their mantle. I think using the same yardstick, Australia can certainly say they are the equal of South Africa at this stage,'' a sleep-deprived Taylor told Fairfax Media.

He added the caveat that Australia would still be the underdog for a Test series on Indian soil. But pressed on which was the best team in the world at this instant, he said: ''I would put Australia, South Africa and India in a pot and then ask where they're going to play. If they are playing in Australia or South Africa, I'd say it's a real close thing; and now that Australia have beaten South Africa and they have lost [Graeme] Smith you would probably have to say Australia.''

Australia's 2-1 series victory means it will finish the official rankings period, which finishes on April 2, at No.2, climbing ahead of India. The ICC rankings reflect sustained excellence so South Africa deservedly retains the No.1 mantle, but the significance of Australia's victory is that it is the first team in 15 months to win a Test series away from home.

M.S. Dhoni's India, for instance, is fresh from a humbling 1-0 defeat in New Zealand. England, at No.4, is in rugged rebuilding and bloodletting territory following the Ashes whitewash in Australia.

Taylor sees some similarities between Michael Clarke's team and the side he led to the Caribbean in '95, including the willingness of the fast bowlers (then led by a young Glenn McGrath) to aggressively attack the West Indies tail.

The key difference is the age of the attacks, with the destructive Harris and Mitchell Johnson in their 30s and Peter Siddle, 29, down on pace and dropped for the Cape Town decider. The unofficial world champions of '95 also had Shane Warne, who with McGrath would underpin an era of supreme Australian dominance.

''It's an older bowling attack. From an Australian point of view you hope you're going to get another two years out of that attack, but Ryan Harris is a series-by-series proposition,'' Taylor said. ''If we want to be the best side in world cricket for an extended period, there's going to need to be some good players coming through.''

For his part the Australian coach Darren Lehmann reckons Australia's preparedness to play a daring brand of cricket was the difference between it and South Africa. ''Not afraid to lose … and trying to play the brand of cricket to win Test matches,'' was the coach's explanation. ''It's easy to say that now in hindsight, but the way we always push for victories is always important for us. We're happy to lose, but also happy to play cricket in the right way … that entertains the crowd.''

With the Proteas beginning the final day with a single-minded defensive focus, David Warner, the man of the series, said he was happy to have livened proceedings with the verbal stoushes he initiated with the home team's batsmen, particularly Faf du Plessis.

''I like it when the skipper puts me in close,'' Warner said with a smile. ''I wanted to give the people

at home some entertainment while they were blocking … [but] credit to South Africa, the way they hung in. We could have done the same thing in P.E. [Port Elizabeth].''

Lehmann said the series win trumped the home Ashes thrashing of England as the pinnacle of his fledgling coaching career.

''We know we're going to play well at home - that's a given, with the way we know all the pitches. Obviously Centurion was a good, pacy track … and then to come on to two flat ones, and get a result like that, I'm pretty pleased.''

Clarke admitted that as the Proteas got closer to salvaging a draw he had started to doubt the timing of his declaration, which he made 15 overs after lunch on day four - but not because of the similarities to when they successfully stonewalled Australia for 148 overs in Adelaide in November 2012.

''I don't think I thought too much about Adelaide, but I was certainly questioning did I bat for too long, how many more overs could our bowlers have possibly bowled,'' he said. ''You obviously question everything … I would have been extremely disappointed if we couldn't have got over the line.''