Boucher and Lee set up tense contest
For the second consecutive day, the pendulum oscillated to and fro, with several stars lighting up the tense slugfest, as the game hung on a fine thread, with the scores level, at the end of a thoroughly engrossing battle at Perth. Two rollicking fifties gave South Africa a slender lead, their first against Australia for nearly nine years, but superb spells from the record-breaking Shane Warne and red-hot Brett Lee ensured the contest was tantalisingly poised.
Punch followed counterpunch as both teams refused to let the game slip away. There was a bubbly half-century from AB de Villiers that helped South Africa reach 127 for 2; a teasing spell from Warne, who overtook Dennis Lillee's tally of 85 wickets in a calendar year, that suffocated the middle order, reducing them to 187 for 6; a bouncing half-century from Mark Boucher, gaining the lead; a speedy burst from Lee that cleaned up the tail; and a final phase where Australia wiped out the deficit.
There was a striking resemblance to yesterday's events with the batting side bossing the game in the first session. de Villiers's effervescent knock, accompanied by oodles of confidence, helped South Africa set a solid platform. Having set the tone late last evening, with a majestic hook off the very first ball of the innings, de Villiers drove through the nagging opening spell, from Glenn McGrath and Lee, and sparkled with rasping strokeplay. Rocking back and piercing the off-side field, he frustrated a disciplined attack, getting away with streaky moments as twinkling cuts flew in the vacant regions. Despite the risks, he backed himself and profited by adopting a positive approach.
The same, though, couldn't be said of the middle-order as they withdrew into a shell, only to inevitably succumb. Despite promising much in their short stints, Graeme Smith and and Herschelle Gibbs couldn't build a sizeable score and their departure left the underbelly of the batting line-up exposed, allowing Warne and Co. to claw back into the contest. Warne's teasing spell after lunch, when only 19 came off 13 overs, had the batsmen constantly guessing. A brilliant set-up undid de Villiers - a series of legbreaks preceding a slider that drifted in and stayed straight - before Warne put an end to Ashwell Prince's misery with a ripping legspinner. None of the batsmen managed to break the shackles, with almost every ball being accompanied with a whir of mystery, and were gradually strangulated.
McGrath and Lee gave Warne fantastic support, with both showing superb control with their variations. Justin Kemp, who initially struggled to get the ball off the square, wasn't allowed to express himself as McGrath foxed him by varying length and pace. Lee accounted for Gibbs and Jacques Rudolph, before returning to mop up the tail, ending with his sixth five-wicket haul in Tests.
What saved South Africa, though, was a sizzling 77-run stand between Boucher and Shaun Pollock, who upped the ante immediately after tea. Six fours came in the four overs after the break as they dared to attack Warne and throw him off rhythm. Anything short was smashed to the square fence, inside out shots were attempted and the faster men were driven with aplomb. Scampering between the wickets and not hesitating to flash hard at the wide ones, the pair went about neutralising Australia's advantage.
Lee returned to break the stand, fizzing one through Pollock's defences, and Boucher floundered against a ripping legbreak from Warne - with Hayden pulling off an outstanding slip catch. Hayden returned when Australia batted, began as if it was a Twenty20, unleashing five glorious pulled fours off Ntini, but, in what was a repeat of his first-innings dismissal, he top-edged while trying to pull Langeveledt. It was a fitting end to a day replete with first-day trends repeating themselves. Now, with three days to go and a clean slate to begin with, it's all back to square one.
Graeme Smith c Ponting b Bracken 34 (1 for 83)
Flashed at a wide on; second-slip fielder holds on to a screamer
Herschelle Gibbs b Lee 21 (2 for 127)
Inside-edged a drive onto his stumps
AB de Villiers b Warne 68 (3 for 135)
Beaten by a slider that drifted away and richochet off the pad
Jacques Rudolph c Langer b Lee 8 (4 for 145)
Pushed at a good-length ball; good low catch at third slip
Justin Kemp c Hodge b McGrath 7 (5 for 167)
Deceived by a slower ball; straight to cover
Ashwell Prince lbw b Warne 28 (6 for 187)
Played back to a legspinner
Shaun Pollock b Lee 34 (7 for 264)
On the back foot, beaten for pace, inside edge onto stumps
Mark Boucher c Hayden b Warne 62 (8 for 282)
Jumped down the track but edged; superb reflex catch at first slip
Charl Langeveldt lbw b Lee 0 (9 for 283)
Beaten for pace, nipped in sharply
Makhaya Ntini c Hodge b Lee 12 (296 all out)
Skied a short one to mid-on
Matthew Hayden c Boucher b Langeveldt 20 (1 for 37)
Top-edged a pull; well-judged diving catch by the wicketkeeper
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo