SYDNEY — Australia had a glimpse of what appeared an unlikely victory and a series clean sweep as it took six of the 20 South African wickets it needs after captain Pat Cummins declared the host’s first innings at 475-4 on the fourth day of the rain-affected third test.
Cummins took three wickets in a fearsome display of pace bowling under grey skies at the Sydney Crcket Ground, while Josh Hazlewood picked up two and Nathan Lyon claimed another, amongst a clutch of several near misses, as the Proteas finished Saturday at 149-6, trailing Australia by 327 runs.
To win, Australia needs to capture the four remaining South African first-innings wickets and then enforce the follow-on in a bid to bowl the Proteas out a second time — all within three sessions on Sunday’s final day.
“Yeah, I think so,” said Hazlewood on Australia’s prospects of engineering an unlikely final-day victory. “From what we saw today we bowled 50-odd overs and took six wickets.
“And the wicket, I think, after a bit of foot traffic at both ends looked quite nice with Gazza (Lyon) bowling into that rough so I think Ashton (Agar) and Gazza big day tomorrow for them.”
A win for Australia in this third test would confirm its place in the world test championship final to be played at Lord’s in England in June.
After no play on Friday, further rain on Saturday morning meant play could not resume before lunch, effectively forcing Cummins’ hand into declaring.
That was despite leaving Usman Khawaja stranded on 195 not out to give his bowling attack any hope of bowling South Africa out twice to win the match in only five remaining sessions of play.
“He was fine, all the batters would be fine with a call like that,” said Hazlewood of Khawaja’s reaction to not having the chance to complete his first double century. “We’re obviously running out of overs as it is and it was sort of being talked about already, so he’s fine with it.”
Australia thought it had made the breakthrough in Hazlewood’s third over when Steve Smith took a spectacular, low one-handed catch at slip from Dean Elgar.
Like the catch claimed by South Africa’s Simon Harmer off Marnus Labuschagne on the first day, the television umpire found that there was inconclusive evidence that a clean catch had been taken and gave Elgar a reprieve.
Hazlewood — back in the team after recovering from a side strain that kept him out for the first two tests of the series — didn’t have to wait much longer to get his man and had Elgar edging to wicketkeeper Alex Carey when on 13 four overs later.
It continues a lean series for South Africa’s skipper who has averaged 8.8 runs for the series after scores of 3, 2, 26 and 0 in his four previous innings this series.
Sarel Erwee was then bowled by Nathan Lyon (1-65) after leaving a ball that was too straight and Heinrich Klaasen fell four balls later when he gloved behind to Carey off Cummins to reduce South Africa to 37-3.
Temba Bavuma became Hazlewood’s second victim when he was teased into playing a false shot and edged through to Carey for 35 with South Africa wobbling at 85-4.
Khaya Zondo shared a 45-run partnership with Kyle Verreyne before he was trapped leg before by a searing Cummins’ yorker for 39.
Cummins (3-29) showed why he is ranked the world’s top test bowler with a near unplayable delivery which Kyle Verreynne (19) edged through to Steve Smith and South Africa was in trouble at 137-6.
Marco Jansen was 10 not out and Simon Harmer was unbeaten on six at stumps.
“Yes it is, we’ve got the day to bat,” middle-order batter Khaya Zondo said when asked if there was still belief within the beleaguered South Africa team they can save the game. “I’m sure we’ve done that before and I’m sure we’ll be able to do that tomorrow.”
Earlier in the match, Khawaja scored his third straight SCG ton and passed his previous highest test score of 174 — against New Zealand at Brisbane in 2015 — and shared a 209-run partnership with Steve Smith (104) to lift Australia to 475-4 when rain stopped play on Thursday’s second day. Wet weather wrecked the chance of any play on Friday.
The forecast appears more favorable for the final day Sunday.
Australia has already won the series after two crushing defeats in the first two tests at Brisbane and Melbourne.