Morné Morkel. Picture: GALLO IMAGES
Morné Morkel. Picture: GALLO IMAGES

All that stands between Faf du Plessis and a fourth Test win are seven Australian wickets. That result would give SA a historic 3-1 series home victory.

With Peter van der Merwe (1966-67, 3-1) and Ali Bacher (1969-70, 4-0) the only captains to steer SA to series victories against Australia in SA, Du Plessis looks set to join that illustrious group after his tea declaration (344/6) meant Australia had to chase a world record 612 in four sessions to square the series.

To win, Australia, on 88/3, have to pull off the highest successful run chase (418).

With Matt Renshaw (5), Joe Burns (42) and Usman Khawaja (7) back in the hut, Tim Paine’s side need a further 524 runs to avoid the first series defeat for Australia here in 48 years.

Du Plessis, who scored a long overdue eighth Test ton and mindful of the past indignities inflicted by Australia on the hosts on this ground, dragged the game out for as long as possible, eliminating any possibility of a gallant run chase.

With SA taking a 267-run first innings lead, the die was cast when Australia were bowled out for 221 in response to SA’s first innings 488. The game had to be completely taken away from Australia.

Du Plessis’s delayed declaration made sense as he had Morné Morkel nursing a side strain and Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada suffering from groin and back niggles.

Morkel (2/18) shrugged off the pain to remove Queensland openers Renshaw and Burns leg-before.

Keshav Maharaj (1/45) claimed the key scalp of the other Queenslander Khawaja when he trapped him in front.

In conditions that were more winter than summer, play started 15 minutes late and after 29 balls and 22 minutes, they were hauled off for bad light. It was a short break but when they returned, the grinding of Australia continued unabated. While Du Plessis freewheeled himself to a 103-ball 50 and his second 50 came off 60 balls, Dean Elgar was stuck on 39 off 37 balls.

Elgar’s 199-ball 50, which contained 180 dot balls (equivalent to 30 overs, or one session) was the slowest Test 50 since Abdul Razzaq’s 204-ball effort for Pakistan against India in Mohali 13 years ago.

It was the perfect foil for Du Plessis’s rumbustious and much-needed knock.

Du Plessis was averaging 9.15 in the series after his first ball duck and last scored a ton against serious opposition in 33 innings dating back to the day-night Test against Australia in Adelaide in November 2016.

Though he peaked early in the summer with an unbeaten 135 against Bangladesh in Bloemfontein in October, his summer has been studded with starts, with three 50s and nine scores under 20.

He provided the platform and the ballast for Temba Bavuma (35*) and Philander (33*) to punch the necessary cameos to push the lead past 600.

The 142 afternoon session runs drilled in just 29 overs made up for the funereal 68 runs in 20 overs in the gloomy morning session.

The excellent Pat Cummins (4/58) ended the 170-run fifth wicket alliance when he coaxed an edge from Du Plessis that was well taken by Peter Handscomb in the slip cordon.

Elgar’s innings (81) was ended by Nathan Lyon (2/116) after the southpaw’s agricultural swipe did not go further than Shaun Marsh at mid-off.

Cummins, who has collected 16 wickets in two Tests here, deservedly took Australia’s final scalp of the series when he trapped Quinton de Kock.