Johannesburg: Pat Cummins, Mitchell Johnson and Brad Haddin delivered the most magnificent victory to Australia as the tourists chased the highest ever fourth-innings total at the Wanderers to square the series with a downcast South Africa on the final day.
At 215 for 6 Australia seemed about as likely to win as Haddin and Johnson were to make runs, based on horrendous records this past year. Yet somehow they forged a partnership of 73 to erase the bulk of the deficit, and after Haddin's exit was followed by that of Peter Siddle, Johnson and Cummins ran down the final 18 required.
No 18-year-old in cricket history could have enjoyed a debut as extraordinary as Man-of-the-Match Cummins, who followed seven wickets for the Test with a batting contribution of wondrous composure. He offered one chance, a sharp return-catch to Dale Steyn when nine were still required, and the resulting boundary was critical. Steyn, so often South Africa's salvation, will curse his drop.
Australia's victory was a rare triumph in a close Test match - in recent years, they have made an unfortunate habit of losing the epics. Adelaide 1993, Sydney and Karachi 1994, Kolkata 2001, Edgbaston 2005 and Mohali 2010 all trigger painful recollections, but this result will do an enormous amount for a young team and a fledgling leader in Michael Clarke, so soon after the traumas of Cape Town.
The result does not extinguish debates about the shape of the team, and injuries will also force changes for the home series against New Zealand. But Australia have now won the sort of match that can build a team and a tradition, and Cummins was right in the middle of it.
South Africa will ponder plenty of what ifs, and are still without a home series victroy over Australia since readmission. But in Vernon Philander, the Man of the Series, they have at least found a seamer of high quality, and it was he who seemed on course to deliver victory.
Philander's relentless line with a hint of seam movement either way had accounted for Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey, either side of Morne Morkel's dismissal of Ricky Ponting, leaving Haddin, Johnson and the tail to confound conventional expectation and collect the remaining runs.
Clarke was bowled early, Ponting chased a wide delivery into the slips, and Hussey was pinned in front of his stumps in the penultimate over of an extended afternoon session. Ponting, Haddin and Johnson are all at the mercy of Australia's newly-formed selection panel.
Dogged rain and heavy cloud delayed play until after lunch had been taken, and at 1pm local time the contest resumed. The moisture appeared to have freshened the surface somewhat, and added to the swing available to bowlers all match, making it a difficult scenario that confronted Clarke and Ponting.
Their response was tentative, and Clarke's careful forward push proved fatal as Philander found a fraction of seam movement on a perfect length to find the gap and flick the top of the stumps. Hussey may have been out to any one of his first few balls from Philander, who nipped the ball away with dastardly intent.
At the other end Ponting was careful, plotting his way through each delivery with the careworn approach of a man weighing up his cricket mortality. For 33 balls on the final day he battled, but there were no boundaries forthcoming to get him going, and it was in belated search of one that Ponting departed. Morkel fired one short and wide, Ponting reacted a little too late, and the ball diverted off the toe of his bat into the slips. He lingered for a brief moment to survey his bat, then marched off to the most generous applause a tiny crowd could muster.
Next man in, Haddin, reached the crease under arguably greater scrutiny for his spot than Ponting, Australian minds still reeling from the sight of his widely deplored second-day demise in Cape Town. This year Haddin had averaged 14.70 in 10 innings, and his keeping at the Wanderers lacked assurance. Yet he and Hussey had combined for Australia's most lengthy Test partnership in the past 18 months, an epic 307 against England at the Gabba last November, and together they began to establish a bridgehead.
Neither was entirely comfortable, Haddin beaten outside off stump a few times and once struck flush on the helmet by a Steyn ball that turned out to be more skidder than bouncer. Hussey had 31 when he pushed at Imran Tahir and edged behind, only for Mark Boucher to parry the chance beyond the reach of Jacques Rudolph at slip.
A Tahir full toss and a Hussey cover drive brought the target within 100 runs of Australia, but Philander's return brought perhaps the critical wicket. His first ball pitched on leg stump and caught Hussey on the crease, winning an lbw that was referred out of desperation and nothing else. Though Johnson's first few balls were negotiated soundly enough, the second new ball was only nine overs away.
Mindful of this fact, Haddin and Johnson attacked boldly on resumption, heaping four boundaries from the first two overs and quickly whittling away the target. Johnson was stopped momentarily by an apparent spike through his boot, but otherwise sailed on with a clean-striking approach. Haddin showed even more panache, driving Steyn straight and Morkel over cover and, notwithstanding an optimistic DRS referral against Haddin from Morkel, the 50-stand flashed by in 54 balls.
Haddin's first Test half-century of 2011 arrived in the final over of the old ball, and only 34 runs remained to be gleaned from the new. Philander's first over brought a boundary, as did Steyn's. However, Philander then had Haddin nicking a late away swinger behind, with 23 still to be made.
The clouds had returned and the ball was hopping, the light also beginning to die. Siddle flicked one accomplished boundary, before Steyn claimed his first wicket of the innings when Australia's No. 9 attempted a hasty repeat of the stroke.
Cummins entered this match with a total of 27 runs in first-class and limited-overs cricket, and reached the crease with 18 still to get. A leading edge brought a precious three, and a series of nudges took the requirement into single figures.
Second ball of Steyn's next over and Cummins' mis-hit drive flew through the bowler's hands. The ball trickled down to the long-off boundary and Tahir was ruled to have touched the rope's imprint - five to win. Cummins swung giddily for the remainder of the over, but survived, to leave Johnson on strike. Smith, gambling, brought back Tahir.
Johnson pushed a single, and Cummins groped around a googly that struck him a millimetre, if at all, outside off stump. The DRS referral was duly denied by the umpire Ian Gould. Cummins left the next, a leg break, then collared a shorter googly through straight midwicket to raise the winning runs. Australia erupted, and the series was squared. Who but administrators would deny them a decider?