Match is ‘in the balance’

2009-02-27 00:00

Australia had amassed 254 for 5 when the rain that had threatened for much of the afternoon finally came down.

Ricky Ponting had won the toss and decided to bat on a Wanderers strip that stood firm, despite being covered for much of the build-up.

Graeme Smith admitted he would have also batted, sighting a potentially tricky final innings on a pitch that looks set to deteriorate.

Smith was beaming only two minutes into the Australians’ innings, however, as Dale Steyn induced a woefully nervous waft from Philip Hughes, which was snaffled by Mark Boucher.

Hughes is surely much better than a four-ball duck, and he will look to quickly forget a most disappointing debut innings.

Steyn had his tail up, and thought he had Ponting caught behind two balls later, but the appeal was rightly turned down as the ball had flicked the right pocket of Ponting’s trousers.

“There was definitely some movement up front, and I tried to use the new ball well,” the speedster said at the end of the day’s play.

Steyn did not have to wait long for his second wicket either, as a rare loose ball was slashed hard by Simon Katich, only for an airborne Neil Mckenzie to take a quite magnificent one-handed catch at gully.

A subdued Mike Hussey didn’t last long either, as he was undone by Morne Morkel, to leave the Australians well on the back foot inside the first hour of the series.

Michael Clarke joined Ponting, however, and between the two of them they steadied the Aussie innings with an increasingly fluent century stand.

Ponting received a rare reprieve from Smith just before lunch. Such has been the standard of the Proteas’ catching this summer, that half the crowd was already celebrating before realising that Smith’s bucket-like hands had spilled the regulation chance.

“Ja, he may owe me a few beers after that,” Steyn quipped later.

“Seriously, though, it didn’t cost us that much and I tried not to dwell on it at the time.”

The Aussies looked like making South Africa pay after lunch, as they rattled up 36 runs off five overs in the face of some poor South African bowling.

Just as Ponting looked set to complete yet another century against the Proteas, he received an absolute snorter from Makhaya Ntini.

The Aussie skipper had already left the ball, only to see it reverse swing alarmingly, then clip his pad before bowling a very perplexed Ponting.

Clarke, who had moved serenely to 68 off 90 balls, then played a poor stroke to be gratefully caught by Boucher.

At 182 for five, the Aussies looked ripe for the taking.

But they hadn’t reckoned on debutant Marcus North and wicketkeeper Brad Haddin.

North looked particularly composed in notching up an unbeaten 47 by the close of play, and the decision to play the Western Australian skipper was vindicated in some style.

An undefeated stand of 72 saw to it that honours were just about even on another tumultuous day of Test cricket between the top two sides in the world.

“If they were six or seven down, then you would definitely say we are on top,” Steyn observed.

“But with them, five down and going well, it really is in the balance,” he added.

Such has been the manner of contests between the two heavyweights this summer, it looks increasingly likely that the winner will again be the side that wins the crucial moments in the series.

After day one at a rather festive Wanderers, this one is still too close to call.

Scoreboard

Australia 1st innings

P Hughes c Boucher b Steyn 0

S Katich c McKenzie b Steyn 3

R Ponting b Ntini 83

M Hussey c Kallis b Morkel 4

M Clarke c Boucher b Steyn 68

M North not out 47

B Haddin not out 37

Extras 12

Total 254

Falls: 1-0 (Hughes), 2-18 (Katich), 3-38 (Hussey), 4-151 (Ponting), 5-182 (Clarke)

Bowling: Steyn 19-2-82-3 (1nb), Ntini 16-4-53-1, Morkel 16-2-65-1 (3nb, 1w), Kallis 4-0-19-0, Harris 11-2-18-0, Duminy 2-0-10-0.

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