Despite staring down the barrel at 293/9 in a chase of 417, South Africa will sleep well knowing that their future is much more secure than they thought it to be after a confidence-boosting performance from the younger brigade of batsmen, overseen by the youngest of them all, Aiden Markram.
With a humungous target set on Day 4 by the Australians on a tricky Kingsmead surface, South Africa seemed set on unleashing their famous tactic, the blockathon. The pioneers of this method — Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers &mdash: are still the biggest names in South Africa's batting line-up and seemed like their sole hope at the onset of Day 4, a notion that was slowly but surely squashed by the end of the day.
Given the surface at Durban, the Australian bowling and the daunting target, the best anybody could expect from the Proteas was another brilliant defensive display. Yet, something seemed amiss when Markram strolled in and sliced a drive off Mitchell Starc off the second ball of the final innings. One boundary per over was the norm until Starc prized out Dean Elgar, and Josh Hazlewood continued to be Amla's nemesis, grabbing his wicket for the sixth time.
When De Villiers was run-out for nought, the hosts seemed down and out of the contest. The brilliant De Villiers was the sole batsman who stood up to the Australian bowlers in a disastrous first innings and his departure apparently sealed the game for Australia.
Yet, by the 40th over, despite losing Du Plessis as well, the South Africans were 132/4 with Markram and Theunis de Bruyn stitching together a steady yet positive partnership. While the beauty and aura of a blockathon was missed, Markram's positivity at the crease and the manner in which he took the bull by the horns was a sight to behold. They didn't appear like a team that was looking to escape the inevitable. Instead, they believed, fought, believed more and fought more.
De Bruyn gave solid company to the mature opener, weathering a Starc sledge-fest and astutely dealing with the spinner. It was Markram who stole the limelight, though, with some exquisite driving and exceptional judgement outside his off-stump.
Even then, De Bruyn's departure was thought to be the final nail in the coffin as Quinton de Kock hadn't inspired much confidence in recent times with the bat. However, Markram's energy was infectious and you could almost see De Kock quaff off it and return to form.
Young Markram had been entrusted with too much responsibility by the South African management in recent times. He was asked to skipper the side in the absence of the big names against India and more often than not has lost concentration while batting.
Despite all the ruckus surrounding the young opener in recent times, his Test record paints a completely different picture. After 11 innings’, he had two hundreds and two knocks that agonisingly ended in the 90s.
Yet, somehow, there wasn't the feeling that he could front up to an attack featuring Starc, Pat Cummins, Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon. During the course of the day, Markram went about dismantling one belief after another with utmost confidence and superior quality.
The Under-19 World Cup-winning skipper blew away the belief that South Africa would succumb to a huge defeat after they collapsed to 39/3 and then 49/4 by taking on the visiting bowlers. He danced out to meet Lyon, pulled Cummins with disdain, drove Starc out of the attack and inspired De Kock to find his rhythm as South Africa, known to retire into a shell when things go awry, started believing that the target was chaseable.
Markram raced to a third Test hundred — first by a South African at home in the fourth innings since 2011 — and De Kock followed him with a half-century, his first in 16 innings’, as Steven Smith and the Australians started conferencing more often. Soon the partnership raced to the highest sixth wicket stand for the Proteas in the fourth innings of a Test but Mitchell Marsh broke through with the big scalp of Markram to begin a mini collapse which saw them lose four wickets for seven runs.
It is unlikely that De Kock — unbeaten on 81 — will do much damage on Monday with his sole company being Morne Morkel and a brand new ball lurking around the corner.
That said, despite the loss that stares at them, South Africa will end the day much happier than they began for they are no longer a team that relies too much on three senior players. Cornered and battered by a relentless Aussie bowling attack, Markram and the young brigade came out with flying colours with a stunning fightback that left Australia dry and high at one point of time.
Too often, the young opener has been criticised for throwing away starts but on Sunday he played with little fear and immense confidence and overturned the pressure back onto the Australians with a spectacular fightback.
True, the pitch had eased out a bit, but with none of the senior players to aid them, South Africa found their fight in the form of a young Markram whose stunning 143 will go down in history books as his coming-of-age knock. Even more pleasing was his immaculate technique against pace and spin alike. He played as straight as possible, kept his eyes in the ball throughout and batted with the kind of resolve that had deserted South African cricket with Jacques Kallis’ retirement.
With the big three in their batting line-up all ageing, the Proteas haven't yet formed a second line of batting wizards or so it seemed. The Markram-De Bruyn stand and the Markram-De Kock association reveals that all hope is not lost. The manner in which Markram and Co stood up to some fiery bowling and even more aggressive talk proved that South Africa still have the talent, skill and composure to retain their stature in the cricketing world despite a few lows in recent times.