Australia v South Africa, 2nd Test, Melbourne, 1st day December 26, 2005

Brittle middle hands back Ponting's plan

Ponting drew level with Sobers, but a batting collapse ruined the celebrations © Getty Images

Ricky Ponting experienced another personal escape from the South Africans to show that his batting had not been soiled by attacks on his leadership, but his individual success did not prevent Australia from being hauled in dramatically. The MCG build-up was difficult for Ponting, who defended his first-Test tactics before Christmas and woke this morning to see Graeme Smith's teasing over Shane Warne and the captaincy, but he swept away the distractions to join Garry Sobers on 26 centuries before watching his middle order hand back his gains.

While Ponting marked his most prolific year with a purpose his team-mates could not match, Smith deserved to be upset at letting his opposite number survive the early stages, and had to wait until the final hour to turn a position of uncertainty into the triumph of 8 for 239. In the opening Test, Ponting was reprieved by an umpiring error and his half-century also eased his side from a difficult situation, but today the costly donations came from Smith, who picked up two excellent catches, and Andre Nel.

Posting first, second and fourth slips, Smith was punished for splitting the cordon to Shaun Pollock as Ponting's third-ball edge flew through the gap. The most obvious miss came from Nel when he dropped a simple chance at midwicket; Ponting was 17 and it took 100 runs for Nel to correct his mistake, which he did spectacularly. Having dismissed Ponting with a strange back-foot drive to gully after the ball stopped on the two-paced pitch, Nel produced a fine leg-cutter to remove Symonds next ball and returned two overs later to undo Adam Gilchrist and derail the home side.

South Africa desperately wanted a strike bowler to penetrate after Pollock's seam knocked over the first three wickets on a helpful pitch, and a spur from the crowd helped charge Nel. He has quickly become a target in Australia and after throwing down Ponting's stumps in his follow-through, he received echoing jeers and the emotional challenge he craved. The response was immediate and damaging as he changed figures of 0 for 26 after 11 overs to 4 for 58 in 22.

Nel's extra energy was clearly visible as the wickets were added, and he was also responsible for a significant reduction in the volume of a crowd expecting their team to dominate after Hayden and Ponting had negotiated the pitch's difficulties. Apart from a brief rally before Warne departed to a wild drive, the stadium's 71,910 supporters were as quiet as they had been when an over-watered pitch delayed the start by 30 minutes.

The move supported Ponting's outlook to play both Warne and Stuart MacGill on a surface that was already cracking, and at the toss he backed his batsmen to produce a substantial score. He knew that the first session would be hard work and after the loss of Phil Jaques, his senior pairing with Matthew Hayden absorbed the danger and generally avoided the seaming deliveries in a considered 152-run stand.

In a summer of batting changes, Hayden and Ponting have assumed greater roles to cover the inexperience of the replacements. Hayden has collected 718 runs in six Tests, while Ponting owns 670 in a year that has earned him 1533 overall. The duo's haul took on greater importance when the side dropped 5 for 32, and the imbalance was shown with Michael Hussey being the only other batsman to reach double figures. Smith turned up in Australia with the theory that their middle order was vulnerable and, with the inspired help of Nel, he has exposed it in practice.

Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo