Nel devastates after captain's innings from Ponting
A burst of wickets from Andre Nel, who finished the day with figures of 4 for 58, towards the close helped South Africa counter an aggressive century from Ricky Ponting, who had given Australia the early momentum with solid support from a belligerent Matthew Hayden. By the end of the day though, Australia were perilously placed at 8 for 239 after having chosen to bat, and South Africa will rightfully feel that they made the most of a good situation. Ponting's decision to bat first on a tricky pitch - damp spots delayed the start by 30 minutes - could come in for some criticism.
The day began badly for Australia as Phil Jaques, the debutant, was sent on his way with two runs on the board as he inside-edged Shaun Pollock to short leg via thigh pad. The South Africans missed a trick or two, bowling the wrong line and length to Ponting when he first came in, then spilled a simple chance, and paid the price for it. Ponting was keen to stamp his authority on the game early, and took a few chances. Off just the third ball he faced, he flashed straight to where third slip would have been, but was let off as the slips cordon was split. Then, on 17, he mis-hit a pull off Jacques Kallis straight to Nel at midwicket only to see the chance go straight into the fielder's hands and out.
Soon after he was let off, Ponting stroked three boundaries, one pull in front of square and two hook shots placed beautifully over square leg, and the momentum was with him. South Africa's bowlers, perhaps a touch too excited at bowling on a pitch that provided some seam movement and a bit of uneven bounce thanks to the damp spots, failed to consistently pose questions to the batsmen.
Hayden sensed that this was not a pitch to bash the ball from the word go, and knuckled down to keep the bowling out. Graeme Smith packed the cover region, tempting Hayden to drive the quick bowlers over the top, but he resisted, choosing instead to defend watchfully till the bowlers landed the ball where he could hit it. And eventually they did, providing width, and he took full toll, carving the ball through cover-point by opening the face of the bat just a touch.
Ponting, who had chanced his arm a little early on after choosing to bat, then settled into a good rhythm, and brought up his half-century with a piercing straight-drive back past the bowler. Soon after Hayden raised his fifty, biffing the ball through cover. Two well-set batsmen were taking their time and generating good value for strokes, a far cry from how the day began. Even with the occasional ball beating the bat and several loud shouts for lbw, Ponting and Hayden put together a 152-run partnership for the second wicket that put Australia on track.
Hayden, who would have been looking to put up his feet up at tea, fell just before the interval, following one from Pollock into Graeme Smith's hands at slip. His solid 65 was warmly applauded by the crowd, but the roar that greeted Brad Hodge's entry told you that it had been a while since a Victorian had walked out to bat in a Boxing Day Test. Fresh on the back of his 203 not out, Hodge got off the mark with a top-edged pull that disappeared over the keeper's head. Hodge, though, was tentative, and did not last long. Pollock had his third wicket when Hodge chased a wide delivery that swung late, only for Smith to take a good catch to his left at slip.
Ponting raised his century with a pull down to fine-leg and the 70,000-plus crowd at the newly refurbished MCG gave their captain a rousing ovation. Mike Hussey began well, driving confidently square of the wicket, and Ponting continued to entertain, pulling with some confidence and success before he fell, against the run of play. Nel got a ball to bounce a bit more than Ponting expected and the attempted big drive went straight to gully. Nel, whose earlier gaffe had seen Ponting add 100 extra runs, celebrated exuberantly.
Andrew Symonds's credentials as a Test allrounder then took a further bashing as he fell for a first-ball duck, and with two wickets in two balls, South Africa had got right back in the game. Then, six runs later, Nel rammed home the advantage, having Adam Gilchrist caught at point with a ball that got big on the batsman. Shane Warne had a crack or two but was gone soon enough, and when Makhaya Ntini trapped Brett Lee in front of the stumps in the last over of the day, the South Africans walked off the field a happy bunch. From 2 for 176, Australia had lost six wickets for 63 runs, leaving South Africa to contemplate a hugely satisfying near-knockout on Boxing Day.
How they were out
Phil Jaques c Rudolph b Pollock 2 (1 for 2)
Inside-edged onto thigh pad and popped up to short leg
Matthew Hayden c Smith b Pollock 65 (2 for 154)
Followed a wide one that seamed away
Brad Hodge c Smith b Pollock 17 (3 for 176)
Chased a wide one that left him
Ricky Ponting c Gibbs b Nel 117 (4 for 207)
Guided the ball to gully surprised by extra bounce
Andrew Symonds c Boucher b Nel 0 (5 for 207)
Tickled an outswinger to the keeper
Adam Gilchrist c Gibbs b Nel 2 (6 for 213)
Flashed at one that got big on him
Shane Warne c Boje b Nel 9 (7 for 227)
Scooped to cover
Brett Lee lbw b Ntini 4 (8 for 239)
Played back to one that jagged in
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo