The middle order comes a cropper
So Graeme Smith was right. Australia's middle order is vulnerable and Smith's side exposed it during a dramatic turnaround steered by the ever-enthusiastic Mahkaya Ntini. When Smith's spring comments after the Ashes were rehashed to the home side over the past two weeks, the responses developed into the war of words that hyped the build-up of a series that is already gripping.
There was not much room for talk today, except for a few obligatory sentences from Andre Nel, as the action took over and control lapped from the eastern side of the Indian Ocean to the west. What began as a 96-run first session of Australian dominance following the early slip of Matthew Hayden surged into South Africa's day as Ntini picked off his opponent's stomach with 5 for 64.
Australia are trialling a new combination from numbers four to six and were able to hide any potential problems during the early experiments against West Indies. It was more difficult today as the hook- and pull-happy batsmen played like the side unfamiliar to the bouncy surface. Four of the top six perished to mis-hit cross-bat shots in an ill-disciplined display that was more suited to limited-overs affairs. The New Zealand tour ended less than a week ago but neither opener was part of that trip and both departed in the same manner.
South Africa's bowlers had learned quickly after their generous variations of length in the first session and their tight lines for the remainder of the afternoon resulted in Australia being dismissed for only 258. Once the senior triumvirate of Hayden, Langer and Ponting disappeared by 117 the pressure fell on the new middle order and they failed to cope in the face of Ntini's impressive resurgence. Brad Hodge and Michael Hussey, who was playing a Test on his home ground for the first time, steadied the situation with a 63-run stand but both fell within five runs after tea as Australia sank to 5 for 185.
Ntini was responsible for both blows as South Africa struck again following an interval and Andrew Symonds, whose place is under the greatest threat, still could not show any signs of transferring his one-day brilliance to the Test arena. With wickets falling mostly to horizontal bat shots, Symonds became the economical Nel's first wicket when he played on aiming another pull. While Hodge and Hussey have quickly displayed their capabilities, Symonds' Test haul in seven innings sits at 76 runs and he must surely have only one more chance before Michael Clarke is recalled.
After the first day, Smith is in the sort of situation contained in his perfect plans. Not only does Australia's wonky batting take the focus off his injury-hit side, but it also fulfills his vulnerability prediction. Smith also believes Australia are scared of losing at home after a clean record over the past 13 years. South Africa need more days like this to test that theory.
Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo