Grandstand finish

Ponting did not have any SYMPATHY for the South Africans. "They did not deserve to win," he said. You can either call it `Australian arrogance' or confidence.

Brett Lee and Michael Kasprowicz are an unlikely batting pair to win a Test even if they nearly did so in a humdinger in Birmingham last year. That Test ended in agony for both when Kasprowicz fell to a debatable caught behind decision on the leg-side off Steve Harmison when Australia required just three to win. A victory in a dead-rubber Test will surely not make up for an Ashes loss, but Lee and Kasprowicz broke into warm smiles and hugs as Australia clinched a tense third Test in Johannesburg by two wickets. Kasprowicz had joined Lee with Australia requiring 17 for a 3-0 series victory (a rarity in South Africa), and when Lee crashed one through covers, the Aussies, set 292, were home and dry.

Watching the gripping action was Justin Langer. Struck a grievous blow on the helmet by a vicious short-pitched delivery from Makhaya Ntini, Langer left the field after facing just one ball in his 100th Test.

The gutsy left-handed opener, against medical advice, was padded up as the last man in the second innings; in the event, he did not have to venture out. In a moment of great emotion, the Aussies celebrated around him in the pavilion.

Australia had begun the final day requiring 44 to win with four wickets remaining. The surface still encouraged the pacemen and the visitors were up against a charged-up Ntini. Australia's record in dead-rubber Tests has been rather ordinary since the 90s, but this was one of those occasions when the side managed to retain its motivational levels.

None more than Man of the Match Brett Lee. He bowled beautifully in both innings to end up with six wickets in the Test and his first innings 64 was a vital effort that kept Australia in the hunt when South Africa could have grabbed a substantial lead. In the second innings, his unbeaten 24 settled the issue.

Without losing his speed, energy and enthusiasm, Lee has gained in maturity. The additional responsibility as a senior member of the side and the leader of the pace pack has only stoked his combative instinct. Lee appears to be relishing the challenge. His pace partner was not far behind. With 20 wickets in three Tests at 15.75, Stuart Clark emerged a huge positive for Australia from the series. The right-arm paceman was able to extract disconcerting lift and operated with control. He might not be the quickest of pacemen but was able to attain two-way movement and bowled in the right channels. Clark, 30, is certainly making up for lost time.

The absence of spearhead Glenn McGrath meant Australia had to find the right partner for Lee. The selectors were spot on in their choice of Clark, who brought about subtle changes in pace as well. Importantly, he displayed a willingness to work hard. His seven wickets in the Test was another critical contribution.

Rightly, he was adjudged the Player of the Series. Australian cricket history is replete with previously unsung cricketers putting their hand up in times of need. Clark is another one of them. The re-emergence of Damien Martyn was another gain for Australia. Martyn is a smooth-stroking batsman of rare ability and his rather dramatic slump in form was one of the key reasons behind the Australian debacle in the Ashes last year. He has this ability to find the gaps effortlessly, stroking from the middle of the blade, irrespective of the state of the wicket, the quality of bowling or the situation.

But his ease and confidence had given way to rather irresponsible strokeplay to deliveries outside the off-stump against England last year. The right-hander from Western Australia has picked up the pieces and resurrected his career in the Australian middle-order.

Martyn's 101 (208b, 13x4) in the second innings, his 13th Test hundred, was a gem all right. He appeared tentative early in his innings, but proceeded to play some glorious strokes, particularly in the arc between point and cover. There are not many batsmen who drive with greater fluency on the off-side. He might have been dismissed early on the final day, undone by a sharp off-cutter from Shaun Pollock that followed a series of lovely away going deliveries, but Martyn's hundred on a surface that always held something for the bowlers did not go unrewarded. Despite stiff competition from the likes of Michael Clarke and Brad Hodge, Martyn has ensured his place in the XI when the Ashes get underway down under. And he will receive an opportunity to make amends for the disappointment of 2005.

Michael Hussey, with his solidity, has added value to the Australian line-up. He is a `no frills' left-hander who knows much about the business of making runs. Whether rallying with the tail or facing the new ball at the top of the order, Hussey exudes confidence that stems from a well-honed technique and enormous self-belief. The southpaw's 73 in the first innings was a quality effort.

He opened the innings in the second innings, following the injury to Justin Langer, and steadied the Australian boat after the early departure of Matthew Hayden and skipper Ricky Ponting. Before he was adjudged leg-before to Boje, Hussey (89) and Martyn had added 165 runs for the third wicket. The South Africans orchestrated a dramatic comeback in the last session of the fourth day with Ntini producing an impressive burst. However, the big stand between Hussey and Martyn had given Australia a definite edge in a chase of 292.

Ntini's lion-hearted bowling in the Test — 10 for 178 — finally went in vain. He bowled with precision and velocity in the bullring that the Wanderers is. Hampered by niggles earlier in the series, Ntini steamed in with purpose and made the Aussies duck and weave. And he did deliver that brutal blow to Justin Langer. While his bowling always had the energy, he bowled to a good rhythm in the series. In the absence of Graeme Smith, who suffered a finger injury, Jacques Kallis led the side and did a competent job. But then, the home batting once again struggled against the Australian bowling.

Ashwell Prince top-scored with 93 in the South African first innings total of 303, and the left-hander did so with typical tenacity. Disappointingly for South Africa, the next highest contribution was a knock of 43 from Nicky Boje that pushed the total past the 300-run mark.

In the second innings, Herschelle Gibbs (53) was the only specialist batsman to make his presence felt; all-rounder Shaun Pollock (44) and wicket-keeper batsman Mark Boucher (63) took the South African total to 258. Boucher has risen in his stature as a fighting wicket-keeper batsman this season, making runs under crisis and standing out behind the stumps.

There certainly were opportunities for South Africa to take the match away from Australia, but the visitors managed to find an answer each time. Australia, replying to 303, was reeling at 106 for five in the first innings before Hussey, Lee and Warne reduced South Africa's lead to just 33. While Adam Gilchrist is enduring an ordinary time with the bat, Lee and Warne have certainly added depth to the Australian batting with their enterprising stroke-play.

Despite South Africa losing five out of its six Tests against Australia this season, Kallis felt the side was progressing as a unit. "I think we had more opportunities than Australia and if we had held on to our catches, we could have done better in the Test. "We are still a long way behind Australia but we are definitely moving forward. It's been a challenge to play the best team in the world. You wake up and you are playing against the same guys, and you have to be up and ready for the challenge. If you are not hundred per cent, you get nailed."

Ponting did not have any sympathy for the South Africans. "They did not deserve to win," he said. You can either call it `Australian arrogance' or confidence.

THE SCORES

Third Test, Australia vs South Africa, New Wanderers, Johannesburg, March 31-April 4, 2006. Australia won by two wickets.

South Africa — 1st innings: A. De Villiers c Martyn b Clark 12; H. Gibbs b Kasprowicz 16; H. Dippenaar c Gilchrist b Clark 32; J. Kallis b Lee 37; A. Prince c Langer b Lee 93; J. Rudolph c Hayden b Warne 25; M. Boucher lbw b Symonds 24; S. Pollock c Ponting b Clark 8; N. Boje c Langer b Kasprowicz 43; A. Nel c Martyn b Lee 0; M. Ntini (not out) 0; Extras (lb-4, nb-9) 13. Total: 303.

Fall of wkts: 1-26, 2-38, 3-97, 4-106, 5-161, 6-233, 7-251, 8-285, 9-303.

Australia bowling: Lee 24-8-57-3; Clark 28-8-81-3; Kasprowicz 24.2-4-86-2; Warne 13-2-49-1; Symonds 8-2-26-1.

Australia — 1st innings: J. Langer (retired hurt) 0; M. Hayden c Gibbs b Ntini 3; R. Ponting c De Villiers b Ntini 34; D. Martyn c Nel b Ntini 21; M. Hussey lbw b Boje 73; A. Symonds lbw b Ntini 4; A. Gilchrist c Rudolph b Nel 12; S. Warne c Pollock b Ntini 36; B. Lee c Boje b Ntini 64; M. Kasprowicz c Gibbs b Pollock 2; S. Clark (not out) 0; Extras (b-5, lb-14, w-2) 21. Total: 270.

Fall of wkts: 1-12, 2-68, 3-73, 4-89, 5-106, 6-174, 7-242, 8-260, 9-270.

South Africa bowling: Ntini 18.5-2-100-6; Nel 15-2-42-1; Pollock 15-2-56-1; Kallis 10-2-43-0; Boje 4-1-10-1.

South Africa — 2nd innings: A. De Villiers b Clark 4; H. Gibbs c Martyn b Warne 53; H. Dippenaar c Hayden b Clark 20; J. Kallis lbw b Clark 27; A. Prince c Symonds b Warne 9; S. Pollock c Gilchrist b Lee 44; J. Rudolph c Gilchrist b Clark 0; M. Boucher c Gilchrist b Lee 63; N. Boje c Symonds b Warne 4; A. Nel (not out) 18; M. Ntini b Lee 0; Extras (b-6, lb-4, w-1, nb-5) 16. Total: 258.

Fall of wkts: 1-9, 2-55, 3-100, 4-120, 5-130, 6-140, 7-186, 8-194, 9-258.

Australia bowling: Lee 18.3-3-57-3; Clark 18-4-64-4; Kasprowicz 2-0-12-0; Symonds 5-0-18-0; Ponting 2-1-7-0; Warne 26-5-90-3.

Australia — 2nd innings: M. Hayden c De Villiers b Ntini 0; M. Hussey lbw b Boje 89; R. Ponting c Boucher b Kallis 20; D. Martyn lbw b Pollock 101; A. Symonds c Boucher b Kallis 29; A. Gilchrist c Boucher b Ntini 0; S. Warne c Boucher b Ntini 3; B. Lee (not out) 24; S. Clark c Boucher b Ntini 10; M. Kasprowicz (not out) 7; Extras (b-1, lb-9, nb-1) 11. Total (for eight wkts.) 294.

Fall of wkts: 1-0, 2-33, 3-198, 4-228, 5-229, 6-237, 7-258, 8-275.

South Africa bowling: Ntini 26-4-78-4; Nel 2-1-4-0; Pollock 25.4-3-81-1; Kallis 18-6-44-2; Boje 19-5-65-1; De Villiers 1-0-12-0.

A Special Correspondent