Hodge's special double-hundred sets it up
A magnificent double-hundred from Brad Hodge, dotted with cracking strokeplay that lit up the WACA, put Australia in an impregnable position in the first Test at Perth, amassing a huge 490-run lead and giving themselves ample time to wrap up the game. A battered South Africa stuttered to 2 for 85 when play was called off owing to bad light.
Surviving four full sessions against Shane Warne and Co. was always going to be an uphill task and South Africa lost both their openers before stumps. Warne snapped up AB de Villiers with a drifting legbreak that popped up after nicking pad and bat, while Nathan Bracken trapped Graeme Smith in front with a swinging delivery. Warne troubled the batsmen with his variations - Herschelle Gibbs was saved in bizarre circumstances when two top-edges nestled in his helmet grille - and could have easily had them in more trouble with a bit more luck.
Warne's moment under the sun may well come tomorrow, but for today, at least, it was the sole preserve of a 30-year-old first-class master playing in just his third Test. While playing the innings of the match so far, Hodge ensured that an evenly-poised contest was transformed into a one-horse race as South Africa's hopes gradually evaporated. Joining a select band of batsmen whose maiden ton was a double, Hodge went from dogged to solid to free-flowing to dashing, while constructing a special innings that will be remembered for long.
Profiting from his compact technique, Hodge displayed the virtues that had made him such a prolific scorer in domestic competitions. Resuming on 91 overnight, he had some nervy moments early on, including surviving a perilous lbw appeal when on 98, but kept his tryst with destiny with a flicked four to midwicket. A pumped-up release of joy was followed by an expression of relief and an innings that could have been terminated on 13, when he was dropped by Justin Kemp last evening, had turned the match around.
With the landmark done with, his score soon began to bulge as he opened up with a few eye-catching strokes. He lost partners at the other end - Michael Hussey nudging a short-of-a-good length delivery to Mark Boucher behind the stumps, and Andrew Symonds flashing straight to the lone second slip - but continued to guide the innings responsibly. His flayed square-drives left the fielders with no chance and he soon began to open out with more freedom and express himself. One absolutely majestic straight-drive - with the ball beating Andre Nel on his follow-through and grazing the stumps on its way to the boundary - set the tone for the acceleration and the pulls began to flow with authority.
The phase between 100 and 150 was punctuated with seven fours and with the declaration imminent, the rest of the innings was played at a one-day mode. A couple of superb slog-sweeps were unleashed; inside-out shots were executed; and he scampered as if batting in the slog overs. The magical moment arrived at around quarter to three, with Ricky Ponting all set to declare the innings, as a slapped cut past gully raced to the boundary. Hodge erupted with joy for the second time in the day and a similar fist-pumping celebration followed, only this time with his eyes slightly moist with tears of joy. It might have taken 12 years and 167 first-class games before he played his first Test, but, boy oh boy, was it worth the wait.
Adam Gilchrist had earlier joined the fun with a rollicking 44, rotating the strike and ticking the score along. With a few booming drives, he was looking all set to torment South Africa with one of those explosive classics, but fell while trying to pull Nel over square leg. He had given the innings some much-needed impetus, one that Hodge carried on to give Australia every chance of victory.
Michael Hussey c Boucher b Pollock 58 (5 for 316)
Opened the face of the bat and nudged to the wicketkeeper
Andrew Symonds c Gibbs b Langeveldt 25 (6 for 377)
Flashed at a wide one; second slip takes a sharp catch
Adam Gilchrist c Rudolph b Nel 44 (7 for 444)
Rocked back and pulled straight to deep square leg
Shane Warne lbw b Kemp 5 (8 for 451)
Shuffled across the stumps and missed
AB de Villiers c Hodge b Warne 12 (1 for 35)
Defensive push struck pad and bat; spooned for short leg
Graeme Smith lbw b Bracken 30 (2 for 55)
Misread the swing while trying to flick
Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo