A soap opera of a day on the cricket pitch

2008-12-17 00:00

Happily the first day lived up to expectations.

Indeed it contained as many twists, turns and flourishes as an entire week in a soap opera.

The day began with the South Africans losing a key batsman (Ashwell Prince) to a cracked thumb.

He was replaced by an unsung but highly regarded young JP Duminy, who averages 50 in first- class cricket and has the backing of his team-mates. And the day ended in glorious sunshine with the score still rattling along and wickets still falling.

An awful lot happened in between. It began with a vivid opening hour in which acclaimed Australian batsmen came and went without unduly bothering the scorers.

Matthew Hayden was first to depart. South Africa had laid plans for the upright lefty, setting a field for back-foot shots, but it took 15 minutes to put them into practice.

As soon as Makhaya Ntini went around the wicket, he struck his length and line and harried the Queenslander into a loosely constructed force. Ntini must wish he had started changing his line earlier in his career. The breakthrough was a bad moment for the batsman, and reward for a think-tank that has picked the brains of such diverse informants as Duncan Fletcher and Shane Warne.

The next incident on a fluctuating day followed imediately as Ricky Ponting pushed at Ntini’s next ball and edged into an alert slip cordon. It was a numbing moment for the Australian captain and a second success for the strategists.

On this occasion Michael Hussey was not so much Mr Dependable as Mr Distraught as he left without a run to his name. Dale Steyn claimed his scalp. By and large Steyn dropped too short, but he had plenty of pace.

At 15 for three, the hosts were in a pretty pickle, but the fourth- wicket pair, a curmudgeon and a cavalier, were unconcerned and composed. Although the South Africans huffed and puffed, they could not separate the pair. Throughout their collaboration Simon Katich and Michael Clarke displayed unswerving technique and temperament. Both played their natural games and neither made the slightest fuss about it on a pitch full of runs.

But it was not a predictable sort of day. Strangely underused for most of the afternoon, Morne Morkel went around the wicket and sent down a sandshoe crusher that thundered on to the Katich foot and gained a leg-before decision. Nor did the loss of his colleague inhibit Clarke, whose next foray down the wicket to Paul Harris ended up in a catch to mid-on. South Africa had been rewarded for playing a spinner, a breed once about as fondly regarded as bugweed.

In a trice the visitors were back on top. Wickets had been falling in flurries.

It was left to Andrew Symonds and Brad Haddin to try to put Humpty Dumpty back together.

They charged along at full pelt only to lose their wickets to boundary catches.

It was exhilarating cricket and by stumps it was clear that this series is going to be a ripper.

Witness columnist Peter Roebuck, who lives in the KZN midlands, is in Australia for the series.

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