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The Bulletin by Peter English
December 17, 2008
Round one of the battle between the world's top-ranked teams could not have been more magnetic on a first day when the sides swayed between being in control and needing to catch up. At stumps in the absorbing tug-o-war South Africa and Australia were eyeballing each other, with the hosts scraping and, at times, exploding towards 9 for 341.
For the first 29 minutes South Africa opened with a flamethrower, burning Australia to 3 for 15 after they won the toss, but then they countered with a 149-run partnership between Simon Katich and Michael Clarke. It felt as though the brutal start had never happened and that the batting side reaching 400 was as certain as the wind picking up in the afternoon.
Looking ahead, or trying to decide which side would finish on top, was not wise. With Katich and Clarke appearing untouchable while picking up half-centuries, both departed within two runs before tea and Australia's position was a wonky 5 for 166.
South Africa were back in front but it does not look like their preferred position. Having chased Australia since their readmission in the early 1990s, they entered this series with their best chance of success. Twice on the first day they had their opponents in tender positions before allowing them to escape to a more comfortable pose through a mix of defensive settings and an insecure outlook.
Andrew Symonds and Brad Haddin emerged for the third session determined to attack and did it so comfortably. The situation was tense but they weren't fazed, with 93 runs coming at more than five an over. The momentum, which lapped like the edges of the Swan River, was on Australia's bank. Then, once again, the tide changed briefly as Symonds, whose 57 from 68 balls was a blast from his pre-fishing past, miscued in a similar manner to Clarke. Both players were horrified.
For the teams it was a game of tag. Whenever one side was caught the other sprinted away. Haddin kept Australia ahead as the shadows from the light towers grew across the ground, looking a high-class batsman, especially when hitting Jacques Kallis for a straight six. His lapse came on 46 when Ntini took the second new ball and he slashed to deep point.
Like Katich's display in the morning, Australia were desperate for the contributions of Clarke, Symonds and Haddin to secure their total. South Africa's bid to topple the world champions, who are still trying to prove they are an all-conquering force, started in stunning style with Dale Steyn and Makhaya Ntini frightening the home batsmen. However, Katich wasn't scared and despite some uncomfortable fends he out-performed his more highly-respected team-mates during a crucial 83.
Clarke was streaky at times during his 62, but his exit was costly. An over after Katich was lbw to a Morne Morkel full toss that was heading for leg stump, Clarke chose a poor time to loft the spinner Paul Harris and was caught at mid-on.
Australia needed Katich's fight on a pitch that was not as brutal as expected, but still offered enough bounce to make the fast men smile, especially when running in to the tail-enders. Katich, who grew up in Perth before moving to New South Wales, made his first Test at his old home ground memorable, settling well after watching Matthew Hayden, Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey depart by the sixth over.
He drove hard, relaxing with a push through cover off Steyn for a boundary, and then swung three fours in a row from Kallis. A sliced cut carried over the rope at third-man to bring up his half-century and he followed with a textbook shot through the gully.
While Katich hit seven mostly crisp boundaries and a six, Clarke was happier to work the ball around before lunch and then became more desperate to follow through after the break. His fifty came when he skipped down the pitch to Harris and chipped a boundary over the spinner's head. An attempt at a repeat caused his downfall.
In a surprise move Harris delivered 21 overs on the first day, earning two wickets, while Ntini was the most successful with 3 for 66. Morkel, who ended the day with Mitchell Johnson's lbw, took 2 for 62 and appeared the most difficult to negotiate. Steyn was better when the ball was shiny and his head-to-head with Brett Lee started well. Lee (29) popped an awkward delivery to point as Steyn collected a couple of victims.
At the toss Ponting said his senior batsmen had to stand up, but within 32 balls three of them had departed. Ntini and Steyn were nervous initially, spraying their opening deliveries, and then suddenly, with help from the edgy Australians, they were world beaters.
The career crisis of Hayden, who hit two fours off Ntini in the first over, worsened on 12 when his feet were stuck and his bat waved a catch to Graeme Smith at first slip. Next ball Ponting attempted an off drive and his push was well taken by de Villiers at third slip. Ntini was on a hat-trick, but Hussey was allowed to leave his first delivery.
Hussey received the best ball of the dismissed trio when Steyn angled one across him and the batsman was forced to play, nibbling to de Villiers who accepted a stunning catch diving forward from third slip. The pace of the action slowed, but something was always happening throughout the day. It could be a classic series.
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