Hodge and Hussey tilt the scales
It took a calmly orchestrated 91 from Brad Hodge, in just his third Test, to give Australia a 272-run advantage at the end of the third day of a fascinating Test match at Perth. In a battle of attrition, on a steaming day, South Africa's worrying trend of grassing catches, coupled with a critical umpiring error, gave Australia the opening, one that Hodge and the rest of the batsmen thrived on.
At 92 for 2, with the game still there for the taking, Ricky Ponting, on 4, unleashed a fierce pull off Charl Langeveldt, only to watch it intercepted by a stupendous one-handed catch by Jacques Rudolph at square leg. The celebrations died down instantly after Billy Doctrove, the Dominican umpire, signaled a no-ball but, shockingly, replays showed it to be an error of judgement, as part of Langeveldt's front foot had landed behind the crease. More misery was to follow when Australia reached 153 for 3, with an inexperienced middle order to come. Brad Hodge, on 13, flashed at a wide one from Langeveldt and watched as Justin Kemp, at widish second slip, tried an acrobatic one-handed take and fluffed a tough chance. Ponting added 49 more to his score; Hodge made 78 more and was going strong; and South Africa, who botched six chances on the first three days, were slowly nudged out of the contest.
Having had to go through 167 first-class games before his Test debut, Hodge was unlikely to offer another chance. With the heat on to keep his place in the side, he steeled himself, grit his teeth and produced the innings that tilted the scales. He plodded his way to a 129-ball fifty, with four boundaries dotting a largely defensive innings, but wasn't ruffled when he was tied down. Once he brought up his half-century he appeared to have a huge burden lifted off him and a flurry of boundaries, including some delicious cover-drives, lit up the WACA towards the end of the day.
Hodge found an able ally in Michael Hussey, another domestic stalwart who only recently received a Test call up. Hussey began in a more fluent manner, threatening to take the initiative from South Africa, but was also required to bide his time, against some tidy bowling. He too found expression as the day wore on, with the bowlers tiring, and, after being dropped on 46, ended the day with two glorious fours as Australia assumed a vice-like grip.
On a day when they managed only three wickets, South Africa were thwarted by Justin Langer and Brett Lee, who had been sent in as a nightwatchman, earlier this morning. Both overcame a tricky phase early on, with Makhaya Ntini and Shaun Pollock asking searching questions, but Lee's controlled aggression, striking boundaries amid spells of dogged defence, enabled them to build the lead. Langer relied more on hard graft, and endured a niggle in the hamstring mid-way through the session, but a few assured pulls, in front of square, pushed his tally along.
Both fell after plucky knocks but a battling half-century from Ponting set up Australia's healthy position. His ground-out effort was a distinct contrast to the free-flowing 71 on the first morning and the fact that he managed to score at a strike-rate of only 50, tells you the tidy nature of the bowling. Just as Australia looked all set to launch, with a lead of 146, Ntini got one to straighten after pitching, induced the edge and restored parity.
That was when the game could have gone either way but South Africa's fielders might have just let it slip through their fingers.
Brett Lee lbw b Langeveldt 32 (2 for 86)
Missed one that came in after pitching
Justin Langer b Pollock 47 (3 for 129)
Inside edged an attempted cut
Ricky Ponting c Boucher b Ntini 53 (4 for 184)
Edged one that straightened after pitching
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo