MELBOURNE // South Africa are just one win away from becoming the best Test side in the world after inflicting a first series defeat to Australia on home soil in almost 16 years following a nine-wicket victory at the MCG yesterday. The Proteas - led by a fluent 75 from the captain Graeme Smith - overhauled a modest victory target of 183 for the loss of only one wicket on the final day to take an unassailable 2-0 lead and seal a first Test series triumph in Australia.
Hashim Amla stroked the winning runs shortly after lunch as South Africa became the first team to overcome Australia at home since the West Indies in 1992-93. That was also the last occasion Australia lost back-to-back Tests at home. The days of South Africa squandering winning positions against their illustrious opponents now appear to be gone, while Australia's 13-year reign at the top of world cricket could also soon come to an end.
Another loss in the final Test at Sydney would see Australia being whitewashed for the first time in a series since 1984 - also against the West Indies - and mean Ricky Ponting's side would be unseated by their opponents in the world rankings for the first time since they began. For the moment though, Smith, could not stop smiling. The captain was almost lost for words as he gave his victory speech. "It has been such a special moment for all of us, it has been an incredible team effort," he said.
"I have been smiling non-stop since we hit the winning runs. To be 2-0 up after this game was something we only dreamt of." South Africa were never under any pressure in their run chase. Needing a flurry of wickets early on the final day to have any hope of winning, Australia did not get a breakthrough until 16 minutes before lunch when Smith was trapped leg before by Nathan Hauritz. Smith had dominated a 121-run opening stand with Neil McKenzie and it was a shame for the South African skipper he was not there at the end having once again shown the kind of leadership befitting a man who was made captain of his country at the age of 22.
He cashed in on Australia's attacking approach, striking seven of his 10 boundaries with cuts and deflections through a vacant third man region. But Smith was unexpectedly the first to go as the captain had previously been untroubled at the crease while McKenzie appearing the most vulnerable of the opening pair. While unconvincing, McKenzie - who had made scores of two, 10 and zero in his three most recent innings - dug in and managed to eke out an unbeaten 59.
He survived strong lbw shouts from Brett Lee, who was bowling despite nursing an injured foot that will keep him out of the Sydney Test, and Mitchell Johnson. He reached his half-century with a boundary after being missed by Matthew Hayden at first slip off Johnson's bowling. Jacques Kallis, who has been on the end of some stinging losses at the hands of the Australians, said the feat was just as big, if not bigger, than winning the World Cup.
Kallis, who picked up his 250th Test scalp during the match and is now just 53 runs away from becoming the eighth man to reach 10,000 runs, could barely hide his excitement at his team's performance. "At the MCG, what better place to want to do it. I've had some individual high moments here but...this one takes the cake," Kallis, who is on his fourth tour of Australia, said. "Having won a Test match here beats all those feelings, it is an unbelievable effort."
But Kallis said there were still some nervous moments in the dressing rooms despite the relatively small run chase. "I don't think it's ever easy when you're chasing a total," he said. "There are always some anxious moments." The Australia skipper Ponting remained upbeat ahead of the Sydney Test and said his team would not give up the top ranking without a fight. "We've dominated world cricket for a long period of time. I'm still very positive and very sure with some of the young guys coming on that in a few years' time that we can get back up there and be dominating world cricket again," he said.
"A lot of players in the team aren't accustomed to losing Test matches let alone Test series." * PA Sport