Cricket Expert & Columnist
South Africa's never-say-die attitude in the third Test exemplified Smith's reign
Australia's victory over stubborn Proteas 'a wonderful advertisement for Test cricket'
Last Updated: 05/03/14 7:09pm
The Proteas failed to give the retiring Smith the perfect send-off but did come within 4.3 overs of earning an improbable draw on the fifth day in Cape Town before the tourists clinched a 245-run victory to win the series 2-1.
In a dramatic climax to the match South Africa, who began the day on 71-4, thwarted Australia's bid to wrap up the match until Ryan Harris (4-32) returned to the attack to dismiss Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel in three balls, leaving Vernon Philander (51no) stranded.
"What an advertisement for the game Smith has been and what a Test series to be involved in, in your final match," said Willis.
"This was a wonderful advertisement for Test match cricket and a great finale, all be it a losing one for Graeme Smith.
"The game lost Sachin Tendulkar a few months back and there are echoes of Tendulkar about Smith because he got virtually everything right in his career in front of camera and on the field as captain.
"Even there in the heat of battle, you could tell that these two sides really respect one another and he's had a big part to play in putting that respect in that South African team."
Set a notional target of 511 runs to win, South Africa ate away at the overs as Faf du Plessis (47), JP Duminy (43) and AB de Villiers (43) all got starts without going on to make a match-saving innings.
Philander, however, refused to give way and struck six fours in his 105-ball innings to take the home side to the brink of survival before seamer Harris struck decisively.
"When Ryan Harris was called back into the attack I thought South Africa were going to survive because Harris looked dead on his feet when he finished his previous spell," said Willis.
"I was going through the bowling options for Michael Clarke and he didn't really feature - I thought he had played his part - but he produced two cracking deliveries to Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel.
"Morkel was the only batsman today who couldn't show any resistance but what a delivery the number 11 got.
"It was very fitting that Harris should have the final word because he bowled brilliantly through this match. He's a harsh critic of himself; he said during his interview that he didn't bowl very well in the first two Test matches but I don't agree with him; I thought he did a great job there as well."
Philander appeared out with 16 overs left when he gloved a sharp bouncer from Mitchell Johnson to short leg, but umpire Aleem Dar's decision of out was overturned by third umpire Richard Illingworth because the batsman's hand was not in contact with the bat when struck by the ball.
Willis backed Illingworth's decision and paid tribute to Philander's resilience.
"It was an interesting approach from Philander because the likes of Du Plessis and de Villiers went right into their shell and played only defensively," he reflected.
"Not Philander - if a bad ball came along he looked to score off it. He had to wear some blows and was a bit fortunate to have the assistance of Richard Illingworth to survive that very loud appeal but Illingworth got the decision right.
"His hand was off the bat but it took plenty of replays to get to that decision; the ball hit the top of his right thumb so the ball hit the glove but the glove has to be in contact with the bat for Philander to be given out, which it wasn't.
"Philander stood his ground; he wasn't backing away from the fearsome bouncers even on this placid pitch. It was a terrific effort and he didn't deserve to be on the losing side."
The series win lifts Australia up to second place in the Test rankings, behind South Africa, following their 5-0 whitewash of England in the 2013/14 Ashes.
But while Michael Clarke's men continue to impress, Willis said South African cricket could go into a period of decline given the close proximity of Smith's retirement to those of Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher.
"You don't take those quality players out and just carry on as if nothing has happened," he said. "It's a great shame that this wasn't a five Test series - that would have been absolutely brilliant.
"But Australia are on the up and up; they are the best team in the world at the moment. India don't play well enough away from home and lost in New Zealand.
"As Michael Clarke said in the post-match presentation, Australia have struggled away from home too - they lost in India 4-0, they lost in England 3-0 but now they've gone and beaten the No 1 side in the world on their own patch."
Watch South Africa and Australia in the first Twenty20 this Sunday on Sky Sports 4 from 12.30pm.