Ntini puts South Africa in charge
A fiery six-over spell from Makhaya Ntini, when he rocked Australia's middle order with darting pace and whizzing bounce, turned the first Test around, putting South Africa on top on the first day at Perth. In a span of 13 deliveries, he prised out Michael Hussey, Brad Hodge and Adam Gilchrist and wrenched away Australia's advantage, set up by a glorious counterattacking half-century from Ricky Ponting.
An absorbing opening day of the series, with South Africa playing a Test at the WACA for the first time, witnessed a see-saw battle as a four-pronged seam attack kept Australia to 258, despite three partnerships that threatened to take the game away. The South African openers then raced to 38 off the last seven overs of the day, with AB de Villiers hooking the very first ball for four, and gave them a great chance to drive home the advantage.
At 3 for 175 at tea, with Hodge and Hussey having found their groove, Australia were well set up for reaching a cosy position but Ntini dashed all those plans in a trice. Running in with customary verve, varying his length cannily and hustling the batsmen with zip, he floored the two set men in a quick burst - Hussey became the third batsman to get on the front foot and top edge a pull with Charl Langeveldt pulling off a sensational one-handed catch running in from mid-on; and Hodge snicked an attempted front-foot drive after being beaten by the seam movement. Ntini then got Gilchrist to edge a full swinging delivery, endured seeing Justin Kemp grass a low chance at first slip, ran in faster, pitched it shorter and, four balls later, got him to edge again. This time, Herschelle Gibbs, at second slip, held on to the chance and the game had well and truly changed course.
It was Ntini who had given a Jacques Kallis-less South Africa a near-perfect start, under overcast conditions, as his second ball of the game accounted for Matthew Hayden, undone by the bounce as his attempted pull ballooned to gully. And just when the game appeared to be slipping away, with Ponting engineering a serious drilling, he forced Langer into a similar indiscretion, as the top edge soared straight to mid-off. He could have had Hodge when he was on 3, with Mark Boucher managing to only get his gloves to a steepling edge, as Ntini, snapping up his 10th five-wicket haul, refused to let Australia run away with the game. It was on this ground, nearly eight years back, where he took his first strides in international cricket and it proved to be a happy return for the lad from Mdingi.
For all his zest, Ntini might have not had as good a return if not for the workman-like spells from Shaun Pollock and Andre Nel, choking runs and inching South Africa back into contention. Bustling in with his characteristic vigour, Nel maintained a full length while bowling against an attacking Ponting. He was driven on a couple of occasions, gloriously in fact, but didn't dig it in short, unlike the erratic Charl Langeveldt, and stopped the leak of runs from one end. Pollock's rigorous methods added to the batsmen's frustration and Ponting was trapped in front while trying to turn one to the on side. Nel was rewarded for his consistency with two wickets at the end of the innings and if not for Langeveldt's extravagance, conceding exactly 100 runs in his 17 overs, Australia might have been in deeper strife.
What saved them, though, was some feisty brilliance from Ponting, who cut through the morning tension like a hot knife through butter. Ponting's first ball had a sense of déjà vu as Ntini's superb bouncer rattled him on the side of his helmet, reminding one of Steve Harmison's snorter that caused a bleeding cut on the opening morning at Lord's. But a change of guard was enough to get back his terrific judgement. In Ntini's next over he rattled 13 - a cracking pull to midwicket, another pull backward of square, and a drilled boundary in front of square when Ntini pitched it up. Four more controlled fours flowed from his bat and he got stuck into Langeveldt with two classic pulls.
Langer's gritty knock was just beginning to flower and the duo motored along after the lunch break. Despite both falling in quick succession, Australia carried on the momentum through Hodge and Hussey, who belied their international inexperience by constructing a composed 63-run stand. Shane Warne and Brett Lee also chipped in with plucky contributions, and pushed the score past the 250-mark, but South Africa fought fire with fire and took most of the day's honours. The aggression with which Graeme Smith and de Villiers went after the bowling in the end of the day, showed that they weren't willing to hold back and Australia, for the first time this summer, had an opponent looking them in the eye and engaging them in a scrap.
Matthew Hayden c Rudolph b Ntini 0 (1 for 0)
Mis-timed a pull; juggling catch running back from gully
Justin Langer c Smith b Ntini 37 (2 for 111)
Top-edged a pull; mid-off takes the skier
Ricky Ponting lbw b Pollock 71 (3 for 117)
Trapped in front while trying to turn one to leg
Michael Hussey c Langeveldt b Ntini 23 (4 for 180)
Top-edged a pull; sensational one-handed catch running in from mid-on
Brad Hodge c Boucher b Ntini 41 (5 for 185)
Nicked a drive on the front foot
Adam Gilchrist c Gibbs b Ntini 6 (6 for 199)
Top-edged a cut to second slip
Shane Warne lbw b Langeveldt 24 (8 for 243)
Shuffled across the stumps and missed a straight one
Nathan Bracken c Boucher b Nel 10 (9 for 258)
Feathered an edge while trying to cut
Glenn McGrath c Boucher b Nel 0 (258 all out)
Caught in the crease, nicked to the keeper
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo