After starting off superbly in a modest chase of 213, the Aussies nosedived but recovered well courtesy a superb fight from lower middle-order batters to get out of the jail at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata.
With the win, the five-time champions Australia entered their 8th final while for South Africa it was another heartbreaking fifth World Cup semi-final defeat.
On a testing turner, David Miller absorbed extreme pressure on way to a rearguard 101 and take South Africa to a fighting 212 after losing their first four wickets for 24 runs.
It was a below par total but the Proteas did a make a match out of it with a spirited bowling effort before Australia, as they often do, held their nerve to close out the game in 47.2 overs.
Living with the chokers’ tag for decades, South Africa came up short in another ICC knockout game but were able to take the game right down to the wire. They dropped as many as five tough catching chances, proving to be the difference in a low-scoring game.
Australian skipper Pat Cummins (14 not out off 29) and Mitchell Starc (16 not out off 38) survived some tense moments before taking the team over the line.
As It Happened
The win extends Australia’s remarkable run in the tournament, having bounced back from defeats in their first two games against India and South Africa.
Australia began the chase on an aggressive with Travis Head (62 off 48), and his opening partner David Warner (29 off 18) slamming 60 runs in the first six overs.
South African spinners brought their team into the game with Aiden Markram (1/23) dismissing David Warner and Keshav Maharaj (1/24) ending Head’s stay in the middle.
Leftarm wrist spinner Tabraiz Shamsi (2/42) then further complicated the matters by taking two big wickets of Maruns Labuschagne (18) and the dangerous Glenn Maxwell to spice up the contest.
At 137/5, Australia had Steve Smith and Josh Inglis in the middle and 74 runs to get before Gerald Coetzee (2/47) brought another twist into the game with twin strikes.
In the end, the experience of Cummins and Starc came in handy.
Earlier, under gloomy and windy conditions, South Africa showed familiar signs of choking when their top-four Quinton De Kock (3), Temba Bavuma (0), Rassie van der Dussen (6) and Aiden Markram (10) departed cheaply to have them reeling at 24/4 in 12 overs.
Mitchell Starc (10-1-34-3) and Josh Hazlewood (8-3-12-2) were breathing fire making full use of the conditions, but after a 40-minute rain delay, it was the Miller show.
Miller’s 116 ball-effort was his sixth ODI century and the first one for Proteas in a World Cup knock-out game.
The southpaw took a blow on his finger from a Josh Hazlewood snorter, but he remained steady and unleashed his ‘Killer-mode’ smashing eight fours and five sixes.
On a turning wicket, Miller had little trouble and was brutal especially against Adam Zampa who leaked 55 runs from his seven overs.
He reached the three-figure mark by hitting Pat Cummins over square leg for a 94-metre six.
His 95-run partnership with Heinrich Klaasen (47 off 48) gave South Africa the much-needed respite before part-time off-spinner Travis Head turned it on taking two wickets in two balls to dent South Africa’s recovery.
After Klaasen, Gerald Coetzee (19) gave a fine support to Miller as they put together quick fifty-plus partnership for the seventh wicket.
But it had a nightmarish end as Coetzee fell on the pull to Cummins flicking off the glove through to Josh Inglis. Replays showed the ball only hit his elbow, but he didn’t take the review.
Running out of partners, Miller finally perished in the 48th over.
Having lost two of their matches while chasing, South Africa skipper Temba Bavuma backed their strength to bat first but it turned out to be a pace bowlers’ paradise.
Australian new-ball bowling duo of Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood revelled in the conditions, letting the ball do the talk in a sensational bowling display up front to reduce the power-packed South Africa to 17/2 inside powerplay, their slowest since 2008.
There was ominous swing, steep bounce and South African openers looked timid against Starc and Hazlewood, consuming as many as 50 dot balls in first 10 overs.
It was not just the bowling duo, but Australia’s razor sharp fielding by Marnus Labuschange and David Warner saved at least 15-20 runs inside the ring.
Out of form Temba Bavuma played without being 100 per cent fit, and looked tentative in the first over against Starc, finally perishing for a four-ball duck when he poked one behind the stumps.
The packed Eden spectators who came sporting De Kock jerseys were in for a disappointment as the team’s best batter of the tournament Quinton De Kock (3) succumbed to scoreboard pressure.
(With inputs from PTI)
Watch ICC World Cup: Australia beat South Africa by 3 wickets in second semifinal to set up title clash with India