Australia's Ed Cowan plays a shot during day four of the first cricket test between Australia and South Africa at the Gabba stadium in Brisbane, Australia, Monday 12 Nov. 2012. (AP Photo/Tertius Pickard)

Brisbane - Ed Cowan was two runs shy of his maiden Test century after he and Michael Clarke batted through the first session to usher Australia towards safety at 214 for three on the fourth day of the first Test on Monday.

Australia had resumed on 111 for three, 339 behind South Africa's first innings tally of 450, with the tourists keen to get a couple of early wickets to try and force a result in a Test which lost an entire day to rain on Friday.

Opener Cowan and captain Clarke, who went into lunch unbeaten on 78, rarely looked overly troubled as they built a stand of 174, a record fourth wicket partnership for Australia against South Africa at the Gabba.

Cowan brought up his fourth Test half century with a single to square leg off the third ball of the day, the 77th he had faced, and Clarke soon followed him past the milestone.

Clarke suffered one real moment of discomfort on the next ball when he miscued a pull shot off debutant Rory Kleinveldt's bowling, but fortunately the consequent edge looped over the head of fielder Vernon Philander.

The 30-year-old Cowan had patiently survived the early onslaught of the much vaunted South African pace attack on Sunday afternoon which had Australia reeling at 40-3.

His innings was a fitting retort to his many critics in Australia, who have consistently questioned his place in the team since he made his debut in last year's Melbourne test against India.

A drive for two runs through the covers in mid-morning gave him his highest test score, beating his previous mark of 74, and he survived a nervous over before lunch with the century beckoning.

South Africa's number one Test ranking is on the line in the series, which continues with matches in Adelaide and Perth after Brisbane. - Reuters