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Cowan knock inspired by late mentor
Ed Cowan. Pic: Reuters

A fitful night's sleep, inspiration from a valued coach and thoughts of his mentor's untimely death have provided the backdrop to Ed Cowan's maiden Test century.

Just as he has been able to use an expanded attacking repertoire to overcome criticism of perceived limitations in his game plan, Cowan put aside those varied distractions to blossom on the most significant stage of his brief career.

Cowan's 136 provided the impetus for Australia's crushing 4-487 in the first Test but could also prove a watershed in his bid to secure a permanent Test place.

"I want to be playing cricket for a long time for Australia and there is only one way to do that, there is only one currency and that is runs," Cowan said after an innings that lasted 388 minutes and took his team from danger at 3-40 to comparative safety at 4-299 when he was dismissed.

Cowan revealed that he struggled to sleep after going to stumps at 49 not out though the company of 12-week-old daughter Romy settled his nerves on the eve of his break-through innings. And the anniversary of the death of cricket writer Peter Roebuck, Cowan's coach as a teenager and valued mentor ever since, provided a poignant reminder of the steps he had taken in the past year.

It was a year ago that Roebuck died and hearing the news on a day that he made a scratchy 91 for Tasmania steeled Cowan to find the focus and discipline that has ushered him into the Test team.

"I couldn't really sleep and had a conversation (about Roebuck) with my wife on an earlier-than-normal walk," Cowan said.

"It was this day last year that started my season for me having found out the news that he had died.

"I was battling away a bit and that kick-started me.

"That was why I looked skywards when I got the 100. He was a coach, a mentor and someone whose advice I valued very dearly."

Cowan also credited batting coach Justin Langer for helping him gain a sense of clarity about his purpose in the team.

Those thought processes were manifested in a series of precise and brutal pull shots and scything cover drives that stung the Proteas pace attack on the numerous occasions that they pitched too short or wide on the docile pitch.

Despite a promising start to his Test career last summer, Cowan was under pressure to hold his place by the end of the mid-year West Indies tour but found a valuable ally in Langer.

The fellow left-hander had been in a similar position a decade earlier but batting with rare freedom after receiving a surprise final chance, used his new mindset to carve out a substantial career as an opener.

"I had a heart-to-heart with JL and he was all about going out and playing my shots," Cowan said.

"I was under pressure in that innings but played on a tricky wicket with freedom. I thought that was a pretty good blueprint.

"In Test cricket if you are standing still you are a sitting duck."

The only duck in this innings was Ricky Ponting's and that seemed a long way away as Australia batted South Africa out of the match.

It was South Africa's first Test at the Gabba in 49 years and they may not wish to return for another half-century given the way the life ebbed from the pitch as the days wore on.

Cowan's dismissal, run out off bowler Dale Steyn's fingertips as he scrambled to make his ground under fire from partner Michael Clarke's straight drive, was the sole success.

Morne Morkel continued to beat the bat and Steyn's pace did not flag, but Vernon Philander and debutant Rory Kleinveldt became increasingly ragged as the day wore on.

And if Australia were looking for victories beyond the weight of 376 runs in the day, the infamous opposition dossier provided one.

The analysis on Philander, the No.2 ranked bowler in the world after 63 wickets in his first 10 Tests, suggested he was untested under the pressure of repeated spells and could be vulnerable.

"Our batsmen must look to bring him back for a third and fourth spell," the dossier advised.

"We must keep him out there on good batting wickets. He has been great with the new ball, but is pretty much untested coming back for third and fourth spells."

Philander was forced into a fourth spell and gave up 82 runs in 25 overs.