Ponting and Gilchrist reduce South Africa's advantage
Two magnificent innings by Ricky Ponting and Adam Gilchrist, and a late strike by Brett Lee, allowed Australia to loosen the stranglehold that South Africa had imposed on the third Test at Sydney, leaving the game intriguingly poised after three days. Ponting struck a glorious 120 while Gilchrist roared back to form with 86 to help Australia recover from 7 for 226 to 359. Then, Brett Lee struck in the last over of the day as South Africa closed on 1 for 4, an overall lead of 96.
Eight wickets fell and 309 runs were scored in a day which produced some frenetic and compelling action despite a gloomy start, when an hour's play was lost in the morning due to rain. Fortunes swung wildly too: resuming at a precarious 3 for 54, Australia took the honours for the first couple of hours, thanks primarily to a superb knock from Ricky Ponting, who became only the sixth batsman to score a century in his 100th Test. Then, South Africa fought back strongly just before tea, taking three wickets for four runs. A huge deficit seemed on the cards when Adam Gilchrist was joined by Brett Lee.
Gilchrist's start didn't inspire much confidence either. He squirted a couple of edgy drives through gully, and it was only Graeme Smith's strangely defensive strategy - there were fielders protecting the boundaries right from the start despite Gilchrist's last eight innings fetching him a sum total of 105 - that allowed him to get over the early jitters. The start was entirely uncharacteristic, with Gilchrist's first 25 runs coming off 60 balls, but there were signs - a sweetly struck off-drive, a well-timed pull - that the golden touch was gradually coming back.
After Lee left, the ominous signs became full-fledged warning signals, as Gilchrist latched on with a flourish that has made him the most-feared batsman in Test cricket. The line and length of the balls made little difference to the outcome - fractionally short balls were flat-batted to the midwicket fence or carved to point with ferocious power, length balls were dismissed over long-off with a swagger and a sashay, and, just to show he wasn't all about power, a deft upper-cut off Andre Nel over the slips left both batsman and bowler amused.
For the South African bowlers, who had suffered at the hands of Mike Hussey at Melbourne, it was a case of déjà vu. Graeme Smith spread his fielders all over the park, yet the rate of boundaries only increased in frequency. And the bowler who fared the worst was the one with the most experience - Shaun Pollock's 36 balls to him disappeared for 39 as Gilchrist smashed 66 from his last 48 balls. With MacGill swatting away fours at the other end in his 20-ball 29, the SCG crowd had plenty to cheer before the party ended with Nel nailing Gilchrist to return with richly deserved haul of four wickets.
Gilchrist's blitz overshadowed a classy century from Ponting, who ensured that the South African seam attack was on the back foot despite overcast conditions which should have favoured them. He began the day with a sumptuous drive wide of mid-on off Charl Langeveldt, and that set the tone for the day. Langeveldt bore the brunt of the onslaught: in his attempt to get the ball to swing he often pitched it up, and Ponting accepted the challenge, crunching drives through cover or crashing them down the ground. And when Langeveldt shortened the length, he was carved through point and then magnificently pulled over square leg for six.
At the other end, Michael Hussey played second fiddle perfectly. In a rich vein of form so far this season, this was hardly his most fluent innings - he was extremely lucky to survive an lbw shout on 9 off Nel - but he hung in and helped Ponting add a crucial 130 for the fourth wicket. Hussey was finally done in by a straighter one from Johan Botha which gave him his first Test scalp. Ponting, then on 97, quite fittingly brought up his 27th Test century with his staple shot of the innings - a flick wide of mid-on, but soon after, the South Africans hit back.
Ponting had been lucky to survive an lbw shout off Langeveldt when on 95, but his tendency to fall over and force straight deliveries through the on side finally proved to be his undoing as Jacques Kallis trapped him in front. On a day of iffy umpiring decisions, more of them followed soon - Andrew Symonds first survived a couple of close shouts, and then was sent on his way by Aleem Dar off a Nel yorker that was clearly sliding down the leg side. When Shane Warne fell first ball, Smith would have been eyeing a 200-run lead. However, Gilchrist cut that figure down drastically, and with Lee unleashing a super quick delivery to trap AB de Villiers in front, Australia will go into the fourth day with more hope than seemed likely.
Mike Hussey c Boucher b Botha 45 (4 for 184)
Straight ball, inside-edged onto pad, and looped up to the wicketkeeper
Ricky Ponting lbw b Kallis 120 (4 for 222)
Beaten by an indipper and trapped plumb in front
Andrew Symonds lbw b Nel 12 (6 for 226)
Given out to a yorker sliding down the leg side
Shane Warne c Boucher b Nel 0 (7 for 226)
Nicked one in the corridor
Brett Lee c Smith b Kallis 17 (8 for 263)
Gloved a well-directed short ball to slip
Stuart MacGill c Nel b Pollock 29 (9 for 322)
Scooped a slog to wide mid-off
Adam Gilchrist c Boucher b Nel 86 (all out 359)
Gloved a pull down the leg side
AB de Villiers lbw b Lee 1 (1 for 3)
Missed a flick to leg off a full delivery on middle-and-leg
S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo