Australia powers toward victory as South Africa falls apart

Australia's batsman Josh Hazlewood takes action against a bouncer on day four of the first cricket test match between South Africa and Australia at Kingsmead stadium in Durban, South Africa, Sunday, March 4, 2018. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

DURBAN, South Africa (AP) Australia was forced to wait for the one wicket it needs to confirm a commanding win over South Africa in the first test after a strange end to the fourth day on Sunday. The tourists were left on the brink of victory, and fast bowler Mitchell Starc still has the chance of a hat trick and 10 wickets in the match.

Australia was frustrated as the umpires first ruled the light wasn’t good enough for quick bowler Starc to continue bowling and then called stumps for bad light with South Africa 293-9 in its second innings, still 124 runs from victory.

Starc set up Australia’s likely win and a 1-0 lead in the four-test series with five wickets in the first innings. He tore through South Africa’s lower order for his 4-74 in the second, only to be stopped from delivering the final blow.

”Well, he gets a chance tomorrow now,” Australia wicketkeeper Tim Paine said with the teams due to return for a fifth day at Kingsmead that could potentially last just one ball.

Starc removed three batsmen in an over in what appeared to be the final push. He got Vernon Philander out on the second delivery of that over and was on his hat trick after sending the ball crashing into the stumps of Keshav Maharaj and Kagiso Rabada off the fifth and sixth deliveries.

But umpires Kumar Dharmasena and Sundaram Ravi told Australia it had to bowl spin after that if it wanted to stay out there and Starc had to watch as slow bowlers Nathan Lyon and Steve Smith bowled the day’s last nine overs in search of the victory-clinching wicket.

It didn’t come, with Quinton de Kock on 81 not out for South Africa and last-man Morne Morkel seeing off 27 balls for his 0 not out.

”It was just getting darker and darker. Even the spinners were becoming harder to see,” Australia’s Paine said, accepting the decision of the umpires.

Australia’s likely victory was also held up by South Africa opener Aiden Markram, who gritted it out for 5 1/2 hours for his 143. Markram batted for almost the entire day, only falling late on to a catch up at the stumps by Paine off Mitchell Marsh.

The breakthrough ended Markram’s 147-run partnership with de Kock for the sixth wicket and set up the late surge from Starc.

Markram hit 19 fours in the best innings of his career, battling a pitch where the ball was turning and reverse swinging and also a pumped-up Australian team that was in typically aggressive mood in the field.

Markram was a target for the verbals when he was involved in a mix-up that led to the run out of AB de Villiers, South Africa’s best batsman, for a duck. Starc also had a series of exchanges in the middle with South Africa’s Theunis de Bruyn.

”Obviously it’s natural when you play against the Australians that there’s a lot of chat on the field,” Markram said. ”That’s something I certainly don’t mind. … It never really gets out of line, either. There’s not a lot of swearing or things like that. There are a few here and there but it’s not the end of the world.”

Australia was in position for a big victory most of the day after South Africa’s top order fell apart under pressure in the first session, epitomized by de Villiers’ chaotic run out. Australia’s quick bowlers sliced through with three other wickets in the 22 overs they delivered before lunch.

Starc removed Dean Elgar (9) caught behind with a fizzing short ball, Josh Hazelwood had Hashim Amla out lbw for 8, and Pat Cummins ripped out captain Faf du Plessis’ off stump to put Australia well on course for victory.

De Villiers thought about a quick single with Markram on strike, but was sent back as David Warner swooped from backward square leg to run de Villiers out at the non-striker’s end with the help of bowler Lyon.

De Villiers was short of his crease, and left sprawled on the ground, provoking a loud, taunting celebration from Warner and the Aussies, who are well on top at the start of a series billed as a battle between two closely-matched teams.

In reality, Australia has been clearly superior in the first four days of the contest, boosted by a 4-0 Ashes rout of England and the fact that it hasn’t lost a series in South Africa since 1970.