The first Test of this high-profile series is headed for a gripping finish with the teams ending the fourth day on just about even terms. Australia, resuming this morning on 51 for 1, suffered a dramatic collapse – losing eight wickets for 75 runs – to be bowled out for 207. When play finally ended at the Wanderers, South Africa, chasing a record 454, went in with hope for the morrow – Jacques Kallis and Hashim Amla were still at the crease and the two young heroes from the epic Perth chase are still to come.
By letting Australia get to 207, probably about 30 more than Graeme Smith would have wanted, South Africa handed themselves a record fourth-innings chase on a pitch that still had a bit of juice and bounce. With close to five sessions available, time at least, was on their side.
Helped by Neil McKenzie, Smith made sure his team made a better fist of the batting this time round. The pair began with cautious optimism. Smith, who was out for a duck in the first innings, had a few tense moments outside off stump early on and was always more comfortable clipping off his stumps. He played some fine strokes both sides of the square during his half-century; plenty of runs came in the unmanned third-man region but most impressive was his driving down the ground.
McKenzie was content to knock the swinging deliveries onto the leg side or, when tired of tucking the bat out of the ball’s way, steer it behind gully. Ricky Ponting employed a silly point and two slips, and brought Brad Haddin up to the stumps when his slowest medium-pacer, Andrew McDonald, bowled to McKenzie, but the batsman remained watchful. When Ponting recalled Mitchell Johnson – accurate throughout – into the attack, after the openers had added 76, he had McKenzie edging to Haddin for 35.
Amla was impressive, timing the ball well from the outset, and helped put on a half-century stand. But just when restraint would have been the better part of bravery, Smith attempted to pull a short ball from Ben Hilfenhaus and top-edged straight to mid-on. He was gone for 69 – the victim, it seemed, of the relentless pressure. By stumps the in-form Amla was on 43 while Kallis, trying to make amends for a poor stroke in the first innings, was on 26 and looking dangerous.
This position was all down to a frenetic morning session in which Australia capitulated in the face of some splendid bowling and stellar close-in catching, under a cloudless, steely blue sky. In one incredible passage of play, South Africa derailed Australia from 99 for 1 in a Kallis-instigated frenzy. Kallis delivered the breakthrough in his introductory over, the 27th of the innings, when Amla took a simple catch on the square-leg boundary to get Ponting, pulling off the front foot.
That was a mere wobble. The shuddering began when Michael Hussey, stumbling out of the changing room like a bear roused from hibernation and determined to attack, top-edged the next delivery to short square leg. Kallis had struck twice in two balls.
Michael Clarke walked out to an electric reception from the Bullring and South Africa’s combined elation intensified when Kallis took a one-handed stunner at first slip two balls later. Marcus North, Australia’s most assured batsman in the first innings, lasted just seven balls, bowled neck and crop by one that stayed a touch low from Kallis. Three wickets had fallen in the space of four deliveries, with two Australians going for 0, all with the score on 99.
Phillip Hughes – lucky to get to a maiden fifty after replays clearly showed he gloved a short ball down the leg side on 36 – clipped and slashed Kallis for fours and slogged Harris over the boundary at midwicket with nonchalance. But when he attempted to nudge a single off the pads to one pitched outside leg stump, the ball was brilliantly snapped up at leg slip by AB de Villiers, his left hand grabbing the ball an inch off the grass. Makhaya Ntini’s three wickets added on the misery but Australia’s last-wicket partnership of 33 in 5.2 overs between Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus took the lead past 450.
In a contest as intense as this, tomorrow’s first session is going to be immense. There’s still a lot of cricket left in this Test, but Australia know better than anyone else that this South African outfit has the ability to chase down the most imposing of fourth-inning totals.
Jamie Alter is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo