MELBOURNE // South Africa are just 153 runs from becoming the first touring team in 16 years to post a series victory in Australia after the home side, with the exception of Ricky Ponting, failed to fire at the MCG. The Australian skipper Ponting, who fell one run short of reaching a century in each innings of a Test for the fourth time in his career, played a solo hand while his teammates, many of whom were unable to curb their attacking instincts, wilted on the fourth day. Dale Steyn made another heroic contribution, taking his second five- wicket haul of the game and his 150th Test scalp to go with his invaluable 76 as the home side were dismissed for a mediocre 247. Chasing 183 for victory, the Proteas were 30 without loss at stumps but should have lost the wicket of Neil McKenzie, who was bowled off a no-ball by Brett Lee. Unless Ponting's bowlers can rouse themselves off the canvas it seems rain will be Australia's only saviour. If Mother Nature does not intervene, Ponting's men will become the first Australian team to suffer a series defeat at home since 1992-93 when the mighty West Indies willed themselves to a come-from- behind victory. That occasion also marked the last time Australia succumbed to back- to-back Test defeats at home.
A day after surrendering control of the match to JP Duminy and the South African tail, Australia again endured a torrid time in the middle. Only Ponting and, to a lesser extent Mitchell Johnson, who made an unbeaten 43, demonstrated the necessary stomach in a bid to reverse the downturn. The 19,149 fans desperately needing something to celebrate but were stunned as Ponting was heartbreakingly denied a second century in the game by Graeme Smith. After not even coming close to offering a chance throughout his 257- minute stay, Ponting's eyes lit up at a wide ball from Morne Morkel but he succeeded only to slice a drive to Smith at short cover. It ended a defiant innings punctuated by fluent drives and his trademark pulls.
Unfortunately, his dismissal continued a trend of questionable get- out shots by the hosts. Only Michael Hussey and Andrew Symonds had cause to be spared a serve from coach Tim Nielsen. Hussey, in his first form slump in his international career, was befuddled by a brutal bouncer from Morkel but deserved to live another day. Replays showed the ball beat his bat and gloves, instead ballooning off his helmet to the onside where Hashim Amla pouched a simple catch. Symonds was unable to negotiate a full-pitched ball from Steyn, edging into the safe hands of Jacques Kallis at second slip. The other front line batsmen had only themselves to blame, all falling to injudicious strokes. Matthew Hayden failed to produce the career-saving innings his fans had been hoping, caught driving for 23 in a dismissal not dissimilar to that of his first innings. Rather than grind his way back into form like he did in the fifth Test of the 2005 Ashes series when he was last under pressure to retain his place, Hayden went down swinging. The formula proved unsuccessful and the opener, a shadow of the batsman he was at the start of 2008, must surely be low on credits in the bank.
His fellow opener Simon Katich, the vice-captain Michael Clarke and the in-form wicketkeeper Brad Haddin also lost their wickets driving at wide deliveries. Unlike the first innings, the tail was unable to come to the rescue, though Johnson at least offered some resistance. *PA Sport