Symonds and Hayden put Australia on course for win
Andrew Symonds, only three days ago being spoken of as a casualty when the New Year came round, crashed a spectacular 72, snuffed out the big wicket of Jacques Kallis in South Africa's second innings, and lifted Australia to within a dreadlock's breadth of victory in the Boxing Day Test. South Africa teetered at the edge, ending the fourth day on 6 for 99, and it will take a minor miracle for them to stave off defeat.
Australia did just about everything right on the day. Their overnight 2 for 110 was a strong position, but Matthew Hayden knuckled down and turned it into a winning one with his 25th Test hundred. He applied himself with great determination till he had burgeoned and then cut loose with fury - and Symonds - to entertain the MCG crowd with some thrilling strokeplay.
The fireworks began when Mike Hussey, who had kept Hayden excellent company in the first session, edged a Graeme Smith offbreak that spun from the rough straight to Jacques Kallis at slip, and Symonds walked out. Australia already had 193 on the board, a lead of 237, and the scene was perfectly set for a strokemaker like Symonds. He freed his arms and played as though it were the latter stages of a one-day match and South Africa, already hampered by Makhaya Ntini's absence with a hamstring twinge, found it hard to contain Symonds.
The sixes rained down on the MCG, and a raucous crowd lapped it all up. Hayden managed two, but it was Symonds with six blows for maximum, who got the crowd to their feet. Boje came in for some severe treatment, repeatedly clouted back over his head and into the stands at long-on despite having a fielder posted on the ropes in that position. When Hayden finally went - caught by Mark Boucher off Kallis - he had made 137. Symonds followed soon, caught in the deep by Andre Nel off Kallis, but the rash of wickets that fell had more to do with Australia's manic dash to declaration than penetration in the bowling. Symonds's 72 came off just 54 balls, with 56 off those runs coming from 11 boundary hits.
Australia declared soon after - on 7 for 321 - leaving South Africa to first negotiate a tricky session before tea, in their pursuit of 366. Smith and AB de Villiers managed to see off a metronomic Glenn McGrath and a lightning quick Brett Lee, but not much else. Shane Warne floated in a peach of a legbreak to de Villiers, drawing the batsman forward and leaving him for dead as the ball ripped past the bat face. Adam Gilchrist read the ball far better and his new fangled white gloves were perfectly-positioned to pouch the ball and whip off the bails. Smith went soon after, driving lazily outside off at McGrath, who moved the ball just enough to kiss the outside edge of the bat.
Herschelle Gibbs began aggressively, pulling Warne twice for boundaries when the ball was dropped just a touch short. But the old master - either setting up Gibbs or sensing the opportunity after dragging two balls too short - pushed one through a bit quicker that skidded on after pitching, and Gibbs, stranded on the back foot, had his stumps pegged back.
In all this, though, the big obstacle in Australia's way was Kallis. And he was removed not by the old firm of McGrath and Warne but by the game's most renowned, dreadlocked seam-bowler.. Symonds produced an outswinger pitched in just the right spot and moving away late enough for Kallis to have to play, and subsequently edge. At 4 for 64, with the main men out of the way, South Africa were in a hole that would take some climbing out of.
Symonds then seamed one in to Jacques Rudolph who promptly clipped the ball back onto his stumps, and collected his cap from the umpire, a job well done with a spell of 4-2-6-2. Just ten runs later Mark Boucher found Warne too hot to handle, edging to silly mid-off off his pad and watching Ponting leap to his left with the agility and composure of a gymnast to pick up a fabulous catch one-handed. At 6 for 82 South Africa were fast slipping, with only Ashwell Prince doggedly digging in and attempting to arrest the slide. Even he could have gone, if Gilchrist had not fluffed a straightforward stumping chance, but Australia won't mind that too much with South Africa on 6 for 99 at close.
Australia second innings
Brad Hodge c Boucher b Nel 24 (3 for 131)
Unlucky to be adjudged caught behind when bat hit pad
Mike Hussey c Kallis b Smith 31 (4 for 193)
Edged an offbreak to slip
Matthew Hayden c Boucher b Kallis 137 (5 for 317)
Top-edged a pull straight up in the air
Andrew Symonds c Nel b Kallis 72 (6 for 321)
Well caught in the deep attempting a six over midwicket
Gilchrist c Prince b Kallis 0 (7 for 321)
Pulled straight to deep square-leg
South Africa second innings
AB de Villiers st Gilchrist b Warne 8 (1 for 39)
Was drawn out and beaten all ends up
Graeme Smith c Gilchrist b McGrath 25 (2 for 45)
Chased an away swinger
Herschelle Gibbs b Warne 9 (3 for 58)
Played back and bowled by a quick skidder
Jacques Kallis c Gilchrist b Symonds 9 (4 for 64)
Poked at a late outswinger
Jacques Rudolph b Symonds 4 (5 for 72)
Inside edged a ball that seamed in a touch
Mark Boucher c Ponting b Warne 5 (6 for 82)
Well caught off bat and pad at silly mid-off&
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo