Australia v South Africa, 2nd Test, Melbourne, 4th day December 29, 2005

Losing it at the end

Three wickets with his medium pace has allowed Andrew Symond's free spirit to emerge © Getty Images
South Africa shadowed their opponents for eight days before finally losing touch. They fought admirably and impressively until worn down today by a relentless march on a variable surface. Australia deserve the 1-0 lead they should achieve tomorrow and with only a weekend before the third Test they have gained control of a competitive series.

Familiar with sweeping aside opponents who wrestle only for a couple of sessions, Australia have been tested by an outfit that has scrapped over two weeks and survived the scratches. Satisfied at being pushed to five days in consecutive matches, they plan to belt out their winning song Under the Southern Cross around lunchtime. Players hardened by tough contests can look forward to the Ashes - talk of next summer's series dominates tables from the shining MCC committee room to the upper bleaches of the Great Southern Stand - with hope rather than uncertainty.

Set 366 for victory, South Africa's chase was always going to be revealing, but instead of answering questions about whether they were in Australia to eyeball their opponents or push them for victory, it showed they had been competing above their weight. Graeme Smith, AB de Villiers and Jacques Kallis suffered tame dismissals that went against their philosophies of stubborn crease occupation and Mark Boucher walked for a close-in catch as the home side dismantled their defenses. Plans of resistance were shattered in a post-tea demolition of 6 for 43 set up by Shane Warne, who over-spun the ball with more energy than his many elongated appeals, and the resurgent Andrew Symonds.

Entering the Test like a homeless person stutters into a posh hotel, Symonds suddenly runs the place, giving orders, dancing outrageously, taking regular wickets and blasting sixes. It was a stunning reversal and as he loped down the pitch to tackle the nearest team-mate for his two wickets today - Warne suffered the first bruising blow but cleverly avoided the second - even he couldn't believe it.

Symonds stumbled over 101 runs in his first nine innings and was desperate for the confidence boost of an early half-volley to crunch down the ground for four. He failed with that aim as he planted Smith's loopy off-spin for a powerful straight six in a damaging statement. It was the opening blow in a brutal cameo that erased Symonds' fear of Test batting.

Three wickets from medium pace in the first innings energised him and allowed his free spirit to emerge, but he also benefited from the situation of the game - quick runs were necessary to provide Ricky Ponting with a declaration platform. With Matthew Hayden, who raised his fifth century in seven Tests, Symonds raced Australia towards the closure with a high-energy display straight from the final overs of a one-day match. "I can bat," he said after play. "I had to go out there with a positive mindset, bite the bullet, be brave and play my way."

Hayden tried to match his Queensland team-mate's hitting but was out-struck as Symonds reached a maiden half-century when he stepped away to launch Andre Nel over mid-on, his fifth six from his 40th ball. "It did feel pretty good, that one," he said. The pair had been involved in some "boys will be boys" verbal exchanges.

An impromptu collection of arm and leg waving greeted each of his five wickets for the match, but his fifty received a casual bat wave before more clattering. He finished with 72 from 52 deliveries and six sixes, the most in an innings at the MCG.

Symonds has survived a painful opening and can be content with his contributions from both disciplines in what should be a winning performance. His next step is to dictate terms in a first innings or grab back control when the side is under extreme difficulty. South Africa face a similar predicament for the remainder of the series.

Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo