Morne Morkel, even while nursing a side strain, took two wickets as Australia ended day four on 88-3, chasing the impossible target of 611.
In his last match for the Proteas, he bowled within himself, but with great accuracy, to trap openers Matt Renshaw (five) and Joe Burns (42) lbw, either side of a strike by Keshav Maharaj, who sent back Usman Khawaja (seven).
Bad light stopped play shortly before the scheduled close.
Captain Faf du Plessis was working with a fragile bowling attack as all three of his pacemen were nursing injuries to a greater or lesser degree. This was starkly demonstrated when Morkel, who went off the field with a side strain in Australia’s first innings, leapt up for an lbw appeal and clutched his ribs in pain.
Kagiso Rabada, who was suffering from a stiff back, looked to be efficient enough, but there was obviously a concern as to how many overs he could bowl, while Philander has been ‘managing’ a groin strain from the start.
Maharaj came on in the 10th over and bowled 10 overs on the trot, getting good grip and turn.
The state of the bowlers had forced the Proteas’ hand in batting on to tea and achieve a lead of 611. Otherwise, they may have declared when Du Plessis had battled his way to his eighth Test hundred, or when Dean Elgar was dismissed 19 short of his ton.
The century was a momentous occasion for Du Plessis, who had struggled for runs throughout this series – with his best being just 20. He did this one the hard way though, batting on after receiving a tremendous blow on his finger from Pat Cummins, when he was on 43.
In fact, from that point, his strokeplay became more positive and he drove with intent. His first 50 came up off 103 balls, with nine fours, the second off 63 balls, with eight fours and a six.
Du Plessis eventually went for 120 when a precise delivery from Cummins bounced more than expected to take the edge and carry to the slips, although it took an athletic dive by Peter Handscomb to complete the catch.
Elgar’s 81 – as befitting such a solid opener – came off 250 balls, with 10 fours and a six, and ended when he top-edged a sweep off Nathan Lyon, who had bowled well with little reward.
Philander at least batted with freedom, scoring 33 off 49 balls, while Temba Bavuma was with him on 35 off 40 when the declaration came at tea. They had put on 71 in 14 overs after Quinton de Kock was trapped lbw by Cummins on four.
South Africa (1st innings) 488: Aiden Markram 152, Temba Bavuma 95, AB de Villiers 69; Pat Cummins 5-83, Nasthan Lyon 3-182
Australia 221 (1st innings): Tim Paine 62, Usman Khawaja 53, Pat Cummins 50, Vernon Philander 3-30, Kagiso Rabada 3-53, Keshav Maharaj 3-92.
South Africa (2nd innings) 344-6: Faf du Plessis 120, Dean Elgar 81, Pat Cummins 4-58, Nathan Lyon 2-116.
Australia (2nd innings) 88-3: Joe Burns 42, Peter Handscomb 23*; Morne Morkel 2-18, Keshav Maharaj 1-45.
Australia trail by 524 runs.
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