South Africa ride on Kallis and Prince
Jacques Kallis and Ashwell Prince were the stars of the day for South Africa as they overcame a wobbly start to finish on a comfortable 3 for 230 on a truncated opening day at Sydney. An incessant drizzle meant no play was possible before lunch, and when the match did get underway, Graeme Smith made the bold decision to bat first in conditions which were ideal for seam bowling. By close of play, though, that decision seemed the right one, thanks to an outstanding 144-run stand between Kallis, who was unbeaten on 80, and Prince (62 not out).
Smith's decision at the toss would have been prompted by the nature of the pitch at the SCG, which usually favours spinners in the fourth innings, especially since Australia have two of the finest in Shane Warne and Stuart MacGill. Through the first couple of hours, though, the South African top order was put through the wringer by Australia'a pace attack of Glenn McGrath and Brett Lee, with fine support from Andrew Symonds. Both new-ball bowlers made superb use of the overhead conditions and a pitch which had a tinge of green, getting exaggerated movement off the seam which regularly defeated the defensive stroke of the batsmen and sometimes beat Adam Gilchrist as well. At 3 for 86, with Australia searching for more blows, Kallis and Prince got together for the decisive partnership of the day.
Both batsmen bided their time, using excellent defensive technique to see off the McGrath-Lee duo, and then gradually unfurling more adventurous strokes against the slower bowlers, as the conditions gradually became batsman-friendly after tea. It wasn't the most thrilling stand, but in the context of the match - and the series - it was invaluable.
Kallis had looked under-prepared in the second Test at Melbourne, having just recovered from injury, but here he was back at his unflappable best. A few balls beat the edge, but that hardly bothered him, as defensive stroke followed defensive stroke, occasionally interspersed by elegant, upright cover-drives, swivel pulls with one foot off the ground, and down-the-pitch sashays off the spinners, who got little assistance from the first-day track. By close of play, he was entirely assured and looking in ominous touch to improve his average of 33 against Australia - a figure that does scant justice to his talent.
Prince played his part to perfection, too. When the ball was darting around, he played close to his body, letting plenty of deliveries go through to the keeper. As the conditions eased, he gradually became more adventurous, opening out to stroke some handsome cover-drives and pulls. Shane Warne, his nemesis, wasn't much of a factor on this pitch, and the rest of the attack didn't ruffle him much.
The assurance with which Kallis and Prince negotiated the Australian attack was a huge contrast to the first couple of hours of play, when almost every second delivery seemed likely to fetch a wicket. Both Smith and AB de Villiers, the openers, played and missed on numerous occasions by balls which darted both ways. de Villiers finally perished in the sixth over, but he should have fallen earlier when he edged McGrath, but Ricky Ponting's 100th Test got off to an inauspicious start when he spilled a regulation chance.
With the ball continuing to jag around, Smith and Herschelle Gibbs decided that aggression was the best tactic. Both were unconcerned by the near-misses, bludgeoning drives down the ground when the bowlers pitched it up, and slashing square boundaries when width was on offer. It was enthralling cricket, but a wicket was never far away, and McGrath finally got some reward for an excellent spell, getting one to nip back sharply through Gibbs's loose drive.
For the fifth time in five innings, Smith went past 20, but failed to convert the start. After riding his luck to get to 39 - his highest score of the series - he was done in by a quick full-length delivery that trapped him plumb in front for his third lbw dismissal in five innings. Then Kallis and Prince got together, and three hours later, they had turned an iffy situation into a position of strength, and one which South Africa will look to build into an unassailable score on the second day.
AB de Villiers c Gilchrist b Lee 2 (1 for 16)
Nicked one that seamed away a touch
Herschelle Gibbs b McGrath 27 (2 for 69)
Bowled through the gate by an indipper
Graeme Smith lbw b Lee 39 (3 for 86)
Shuffled across to a full-length ball and trapped plumb in front
S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo