Australia v South Africa, 1st Test, Perth, 5th day December 20, 2005

Fighting the good battle

Jacques Rudolph's masterclass stole the thunder from Australia on day five © Getty Images
Great innings of defiance are remembered for hours of defensive application rather than their fluency. The Australians will recall Jacques Rudolph as the quiet Afrikaner leaning on his toes defending, blocking or leaving before gathering himself with a couple of steps to square leg.

Rudolph hit 13 fours and only the cover-drive to bring up his hundred sticks in the mind, which does not diminish the importance of a superb, gritty display diffusing 283 deliveries. The number of boundaries struck by Ponting, Atherton, Greatbatch, Mackay et al were not relevant either, but the upshots of their famous innings were. Saving a Test that should have been lost must be one of a team's most satisfying achievements and Rudolph has become an unlikely hero.

Only the wonky elbow of Jacques Kallis allowed Rudolph entry to this match and he gave Australia much second-innings pain. At no point was he rushed as he absorbed short and full balls and countered Shane Warne's unpredictability on a pitch capable of springing a topspinner into his helmet and a slider almost along the ground.

Facing a nominal target of 491, Rudolph began the day on 18 and finished it on 102, coping with the worry of seeing two top-order partners disappear before lunch, overcoming 35 overs from Warne which gave up only 56 runs, and enjoying a marathon partnership of 112 with Justin Kemp. Wearing a short-sleeve sweater despite the summer sun, Rudolph remained cool throughout the day as the temperature of the Australians increased.

Ricky Ponting's men were at their most desperate after tea when the six-wickets-for-the-win aim had not moved since the first session. Until then Ponting had employed only four bowlers, relying on Warne who was visibly and understandably tiring, and expected South Africa to wilt. It was Ponting's conservative approach that attracted criticism in England and the same mindset created problems in this match.

Australia set a target of 491 that looked like a ridiculous indulgence when the tourists finished in the relative comfort of 5 for 287. Ponting, who delayed the declaration for Brad Hodge's double-century on day four, has set similar marks in matches when he has not enforced the follow-on - 509 for West Indies at Brisbane last month; 464 for New Zealand at Adelaide last summer - and commandeered easy victories. This opponent fought successfully through Rudolph and a Test involving Australia and no rain lasted the full five days.

Ponting is a better leader when the game is running with him, which is not strange considering the winning positions he has usually been in as batsman and leader. He tried some interesting and attacking field placements with the fast bowlers, but until he called on Andrew Symonds, who is either a batsman without runs or an allrounder without a chance, for his first delivery of the match in the 100th over his greatest risk was not giving Glenn McGrath the second new ball.

Symonds received three overs after tea, Hodge was given a couple and Warne switched ends. The close-in fielders stepped even nearer to the edge of the pitch and the appeals became pleas as Billy Doctrove, standing in his fifth Test, continued to shake his head wisely. Nothing bothered Rudolph as he leaned on his toes, mostly to defend but also to leave and occasionally for attack, and waited for safety.

Kemp offered tremendous support in making 55 from 166 balls after being mocked by Warne in the first innings, but it was Rudolph who kept the South African heart-rate low. His hundred came in the fifth-last over of the day and he was applauded by fatigued Australians and cheerful South Africans. At the end of a gripping contest Rudolph and his team-mates looked relatively fresh while the home side was desperate for a rest. With three Tests in as many weeks it could be a significant day in the series.

Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo