Mitchell Starc became the seventh Australian to claim 300 Test wickets as the hosts scythed through South Africa for the second time in two days at the Gabba, the left-armer helping skittle the Proteas for just 99 to set up a 1-0 series lead.
But another failure from opener David Warner and a nervous fourth innings run-chase took some of the gloss off the victory, the opener following up his first-innings golden duck with just 3 as the Aussies made hard work of the 34 runs they needed for victory.
Extraordinarily, 19 of the runs required came via extras as the Proteas’ short-ball barrage saw delivery after delivery whizz over wicketkeeper Kyle Verreynne’s head and to the boundary, 15 wides and four byes conceded by Kagiso Rabada and Anrich Nortje.
Rabada’s four wickets, though, ensured an eight-wicket match haul and plenty of psychological points for the Proteas to carry into the second Test at the MCG, blasting out Warner, Usman Khawaja, Steve Smith and Travis Head in a crazy four-over spell.
Earlier, player of the match Head fell heartbreakingly short of a century for the second time this summer, but his 92 and a late cameo from Alex Carey (22 not out) saw Australia to 218 and a first-innings lead of 66.
The Proteas then wilted in the face of a spicy Brisbane surface and a fired-up pace attack once again, captain Pat Cummins cleaning up the tail to finish with five wickets.
Only a freewheeling 30-run partnership for the final wicket between Khaya Zondo and Lungi Ngidi prevented further humiliation, Zondo finishing unbeaten on 36 to all but assure his selection for the Boxing Day Test.
Starc would only claim two further scalps, but his first, a remarkable inswinger to castle Rassie van der Dussen for his 300th Test victim, was the ball that summed up the Aussies’ dominance.
Only needing 34 runs for victory, openers David Warner and Usman Khawaja calmly knocked the requirement over, the second time that pair have ensured a 10-wicket victory for Australia after doing likewise against Sri Lanka in Galle earlier this year.
In terms of balls bowled, it’s the second-fastest completed Test match ever played in Australia, the 867 deliveries sent down ahead of only a match between Australia and South Africa on a Melbourne ‘sticky wicket’ in February 1932, where only 656 balls were bowled.
Only once since World War II has a completed match been shorter – India’s 10-wicket victory over England on a raging turner in Ahmedabad in February 2021, which was also wrapped up inside two days and after just 842 balls.
“I’m not sure if I any of us can remember a two-day Test,” Starc told Fox Cricket afterwards.
“It was very interesting to say the least.”
The rapid finish is sure to heap scrutiny on a Gabba surface that offered plenty to the bowlers, with steepling bounce and extreme pace hallmarks throughout the match.
“It wasn’t much fun for us batters out there to be honest,” Smith told Channel 7.
“It was a very challenging wicket – lots of seam movement, very up and down, divots in the wicket.
“It wasn’t much fun, but fortunately we were on the right end of it.”
Proteas captain Dean Elgar was similarly unimpressed with the conditions, describing the wicket as ‘pretty spicy’.
“If you’re a bowler, you’d be licking your lips by how everything unfolded,” he said.
“[It was] challenging for the batters, no doubt. That is okay if there is a good contest between bat and ball. Obviously, on the flip side, I don’t see it was that way, really.
“If you have quality bowling attacks people will want to watch. But they will want to watch for five days, which obviously did not happen today.”
However, scant few of the 19 wickets to fall on day two could be blamed on the pitch – Smith’s in the run chase, caught behind off a wild slash, chief among them.
Indeed, the majority of the Aussies to fall in their first innings did so chasing quick runs. After a pair of crunched cover drives for four, Cameron Green’s attempt to add a third off Marco Jansen’s second ball of the morning only succeeded in edging to slip, where Keshav Maharaj parried the chance skywards for Sarel Erwee to cling on at the second attempt.
When Head fell two balls later gloving to Verreynne down the leg side to end hopes of centuries in consecutive Tests, the Australian lead was just 30. Carey and Starc saw the hosts past the 200 mark, but with neither Cummins nor Nathan Lyon troubling the scorers, Rabada overcoming a sluggish start to the day to finish with figures of 4/76, a deficit of 66 would have been gleefully taken by the Proteas to start the day.
But hopes of a fightback took just 10 balls to be dashed, captain Dean Elgar completing a poor Test when he was trapped in front by Cummins for just two. A desperate review found the ball to be clipping the top of the stumps, Elgar’s smile of resignation telling of a captain out of luck and runs.
With van der Dussen’s stumps splattered by Starc to become the left-armer’s 300th Test victim, the Proteas headed to lunch at 2/3 and still facing a hefty deficit. That became 3/5 shortly after when Erwee was brilliantly caught by Green at full stretch in the gully – though once again, playing at a ball he could have left outside off was more to blame for the dismissal than any demons in the pitch.
Amid the bowler domination, one partnership per innings has proved the conditions could be mastered with application and resilience. Temba Bavuma and Verreynne did just that in the Proteas’ first knock with a stand of 98, while Head and Smith did likewise for Australia to put on 117 at more than five runs per over.
There were no such fireworks for the Proteas the second time around, but Bavuma and Zondo added 42 runs with disciplined defence and the occasional body blow, the former copping a nasty hit to the elbow off a Starc delivery that reared noticeably.
Once Lyon broke the stand to trap Bavuma in front for 29, though, the floodgates opened as the Proteas’ long tail was exposed to Scott Boland.
Verreynne was unable to replicate his first-innings heroics, edging a perfect ball from the Victorian to Smith at slip; remarkably, Boland would claim multiple wickets in the over for the fifth time in five Tests by clean bowling Jansen two balls later.
Maharaj slapped three boundaries before dying by the sword, flashing a thick edge behind to give Starc his 301st Test scalp. Shortly after, Cummins found himself on a hat-trick when Rabada and Nortje fell to catches behind the wicket in successive balls.
The only bright spot was Zondo: playing just his third Test, the 32-year old defied the Aussie attack together with last man in Lungi Ngidi to add 30 runs in under six overs, once again proving attack to be the best form of defence on that pitch.
Punching regularly through the covers and not afraid to try and hit over the top, Zondo’s unbeaten 36 wasn’t enough to turn the tide, but did ensure the Proteas reached 99. Not enough runs for victory, but enough for Rabada to leave them pondering what might have been with another 50 to the total.
Remarkably, the win is Australia’s first over South Africa in a live-rubber Test on these shores since January 2006. Having lost three consecutive home series to the Proteas, the Aussies need win just one of upcoming matches at the MCG and SCG to break the run.