Australia on the rack: 3 down and 524 runs behind SAfrica

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South Africa's captain Faf du Plessis plays a shot on day four of the fourth cricket test match between South Africa and Australia at the Wanderers stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, Monday, April 2. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)
South Africa’s captain Faf du Plessis plays a shot on day four of the fourth cricket test match between South Africa and Australia at the Wanderers stadium in Johannesburg, South Africa, Monday, April 2. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

Johannesburg (AP) — South African trio Faf du Plessis, Dean Elgar, and Morne Morkel did most of the damage to leave Australia staring at a heavy defeat and a series loss on the penultimate day of the fourth and final test on Monday.

Du Plessis struck his eighth test century and combined in a 170-run stand for the fourth wicket with Elgar, who made 81, as the home team declared on 344-6 in the second innings to set Australia a near-impossible victory target of 612 at the Wanderers.

When bad light ended play early, Australia were reeling at 88-3 and 524 runs behind. Paceman Morkel, still nursing a left side strain he sustained earlier in the test, trapped openers Matt Renshaw and Joe Burns leg before wicket.

The highest winning fourth-innings score in test cricket is 418-7 by West Indies against Australia in 2003. To win in Johannesburg, Australia need nearly 200 more, and would have to make the second-highest fourth-innings total ever — no matter the result — in nearly 150 years of test cricket.

A draw is by far the most realistic aim.

“Tomorrow’s about coming out and just putting in a good performance for Australia, try and do the country proud and just try and really knuckle down and be proud of our performance tomorrow,” Burns said. “It’s going to be a grind, it’s day five, last day of a really tough series, and there’s a hell of a lot of motivation to do well.”

South Africa are 2-1 up and on the brink of beating Australia in a home series for the first time since 1970. Australia have already been hurt by the ball-tampering scandal of the third test, which led to long-term bans for captain Steve Smith, vice-captain David Warner and batsman Cameron Bancroft, and led to the short-notice call-ups of Burns and Renshaw.

For South Africa, Du Plessis hit 120 with 18 fours and two sixes despite twice being hit on the right index finger, a digit he broke earlier in the season.

“That would have motivated him more,” teammate Elgar said. “Made him hungrier to stay out there and fight through the pain. That’s his character when he’s batting.”

Opening batsman Elgar was much less expansive as he ground out an ultra-patient 81 off 250 deliveries.

After du Plessis and Elgar were dismissed, Temba Bavuma (35) and Vernon Philander (33) piled on the agony for Australia with an unbeaten partnership of 71 for the seventh wicket.

Paceman Pat Cummins was the most productive bowler, taking 4-58 to finish with a career-best nine wickets in the match.