Morne Morkel took two wickets to restrict Australia to 88 for three at the close on the fourth day of the final Test as South Africa marched towards an emphatic victory. Having set Australia 612 for a win that would level the series, the home side removed the tourists’ top three batsmen – despite injury concerns over their pace trio which delayed South Africa’s declaration until tea.
Peter Handscomb (23) and Shaun Marsh (seven) will set about saving the Test on the fifth day but only a near impossible victory would ensure Australia avoid a first series defeat in South Africa for almost 50 years. But the home side have injury worries over all their fast bowlers: Kagiso Rabada has a stiff lower back, Morkel is struggling with a side strain and Vernon Philander has a groin problem. That meant they limited the number of overs the trio had to bowl as the hosts declared on 344 for six after a stylish century from the captain, Faf du Plessis.
Australia have been rocked by the ball-tampering scandal with their former captain Steve Smith, his deputy David Warner and batsman Cameron Bancroft sent home after the third Test in Cape Town.
Having been dropped in the gully by Temba Bavuma off Philander, the Australia opener Matt Renshaw’s tortured stay at the crease was ended by Morkel, who is playing in his final Test before international retirement, as he was trapped lbw after a 42-ball innings that yielded five runs.
South Africa’s second wicket was more controversial as Usman Khawaja (seven) was given out lbw by the umpire Nigel Llong off the bowling of the spinner Keshav Maharaj. The ball struck the left-hander outside the line of off stump, but Llong and the third umpire Richard Illingworth agreed he had not been offering a shot, a decision the Australian clearly felt was wrong.
The opener Joe Burns (42) had looked in good touch until he became the third batsman trapped in front, this time from a rare Morkel yorker that was hitting middle stump.
A relieved Du Plessis (120) reached his eighth Test century after passing 50 for the first time in 11 innings, seven of which have been single-figure scores. He was out edging the seamer Pat Cummins (4 for 58) to a diving Handscomb at second slip, ending a fourth-wicket partnership of 170 with the opener Dean Elgar (81).
Elgar’s 250-ball vigil ended shortly afterwards when he tried to attack the spinner Nathan Lyon (two for 116), but skied his shot to Shaun Marsh at mid-on. Quinton de Kock (four) was trapped lbw by Cummins, who recorded the best Test match figures of his career, nine for 141.