The final figures may not indicate it, but this was a day of rock climbing. Australia would scuttle a couple of meters only to be roped in; South Africa started sloppily but found their footing; Australia briefly regained stability but before they could inch ahead the home side pulled the ground from beneath. With each burst of wickets South Africa improved and at the end of an engrossing opening day the honours lay firmly in their hands.
After a fraught first hour, when everything went against them, they hit back with three bursts – the biggest being when they dismissed Australia’s top order for 23 runs in nine overs. Aided by 16 fiery overs from Dale Steyn, South Africa rounded off the day with their new opening pair jogging unscathed to stumps through 14 busy overs.
After sloppy (78 for 3 in Johannesburg) and authoritative (119 for 0 in Durban) mornings having won the toss, Australia began their quest for a whitewash by surviving a tricky start and gaining in confidence only to slip. And therein lay the impetus South Africa needed. Stroke-making wasn’t easy against a springy new ball and a vigorous opening spell but Australia were helped by a slew of missed chances and dropped catches. The openers had scrapped through the first hour – in which only 29 runs were scored – but once Phillip Hughes was out in the 23rd over, Australia’s top order folded.
Paul Harris had Hughes in his first over, sweeping one that pitched just outside off stump, and next over Australia were dealt a massive blow when Ricky Ponting drove loosely at a full and late away-swinging delivery from the debutant Albie Morkel and feathered a thin edge to Mark Boucher.
Makhaya Ntini’s exemplary yet wicketless opening spell of 7-5-6-0, at a consistently good pace to keep the two left-handed openers guessing, was better, but Steyn’s burst just after lunch yielded wickets. Steyn rattled the stumps of Michael Hussey – the ball after he raised 3000 Test runs, the 33rd Australian to do so – and Michael Clarke in consecutive overs to further dent Australia.
Steyn ran in hard during that passage but Morkel and Jacques Kallis weren’t as threatening, and Simon Katich and Brad Haddin prospered, one steadfast, the other counter-attacking. Katich had been the chief beneficiary of South Africa’s sloppiness in the morning – reprieved on 4 when Kallis failed to refer what looked a plumb lbw shout and on 9 when the debutant Imraan Khan dropped a sitter at point – and the sole survivor of Australia’s top-order wobble. Efficiently, he cut out all flash as he gritted and grimaced along. South Africa’s two double-strikes had forced Katich to cut out most of his strokes and he held up one end well. As the bowlers slacked he cashed in on a spate of wide deliveries to move through the forties and on to his half-century, from 138 balls. The runs-to-deliveries quotient reflected his graft.
The pair had added a promising 71 and Australia seemed to have found a solid footing. Everything changed when Harris was reintroduced. Having faced a few strangling overs, Katich attempted his first aggressive shot and top-edged a sweep to the man who had earlier reprieved him at point.
The responsibility now grew on Haddin, who until this time had played well under pressure. His placement fetched him a flurry of boundaries after he came to the middle and a stroke-filled 42 helped pull Australia out of a tight situation. But, as the second session, the final began South Africa’s way. Harris rapped Haddin in front of middle and leg and the appeal was upheld, even after the batsman referred it to the third umpire.
Andrew McDonald nudged uncertainly and held his ground to add 32 with Mitchell Johnson, only for Ntini to take two in two balls, becoming the highest wicket-taker at Newlands – the ground on which he made his debut – with 53. Steyn added Johnson, attempting to hit another one over the infield, and the journeyman debutant Bryce McGain became the last man to be dismissed, at 209.
The manner in which Ashwell Prince, opening for the first time in Tests, and Imraan went about their task in the shadows of stumps reflected the good work done by a rejuvenated home side in the field. Imraan showed few nerves in accumulating an unbeaten 15, while Prince slipped into his new role with assurance to make a sparkling 37 not out – so much so, that he lofted McGain for six minutes before stumps.
South Africa have every reason to be pleased with their day’s work. The jitters at base camp look miles below now.
Jamie Alter is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo