Australia v South Africa, 2nd Test, Melbourne, 1st day December 26, 2008

We did well to keep them under 300 - Ntini

Makhaya Ntini: "He's hitting the ball very well, if you bowl like I did a bit full" © AFP (file photo)

Makhaya Ntini is not the man Matthew Hayden wants to be facing while trying to justify extending his career. When Ntini collected Hayden for 8 it was the ninth time he had picked him up in the 11 Tests they have played against each other. No bowler has taken Hayden's wicket more times and no batsman has been dismissed by Ntini more often.

It was a smart piece of thinking from Ntini, who was coming around the wicket, to lure Hayden into driving a ball that had some width and moved away a fraction. Hayden had been conscientiously leaving deliveries outside off but temptation got the better of him and his thickish edge flew to gully. It was a similar dismissal to the first innings in Perth, when Ntini angled the ball in to Hayden and nipped it away to catch the edge.

As Hayden trudged off the MCG, his favourite venue, it seemed increasingly likely that his days at the top of the order were running out, despite his declaration during the week that he had no retirement plans yet. In Ntini's previous over Hayden had driven handsomely down the ground and Ntini said it showed there was a fine line between form and failure.

"He's hitting the ball very well, if you bowl like I did a bit full," Ntini said. "Cricket has ways of … showing your downfalls, if you get frustrated very quickly, those kinds of things are easy to show. But if you are a hard-working person ... you never know. He might come out in the second innings and score a hundred."

The early departure of Hayden brought Ricky Ponting to the crease sooner than he would have liked for the umpteenth time in the past few months. Ponting has insisted all along that Hayden is striking the ball well and while there are momentary glimpses of his best, the visions are being cut short too often for an opening batsman to hold his place indefinitely.

"His results are [a worry]," Ponting said. "The way he started this morning, he looked particularly sharp. He hasn't got the runs that he would have hoped for and that we would have hoped for. He'll get another opportunity in the second innings and then hopefully he can grab hold of that one with both hands and make a big score."

What Hayden really needed was an attractive century, just like the one Ponting delivered. His 101 was fluent but he was the only batsman who picked up the pace of a pitch that was not offering as much bounce as expected. Michael Clarke went to stumps on an agonising but important 36 from 157 balls and Ponting said 6 for 280, on such a difficult surface, was a good result.

"We've had a reasonable day today I think," Ponting said. "It's pretty hard to gauge who's come out on top today because the outfield as you saw was reasonably slow so 280 to us is probably worth a bit over 300 today I'd imagine."

It sounded like he was trying to convince himself as much as anyone. The loss of Brad Haddin in the penultimate over, caught at slip off Ntini, gave South Africa the edge. It was a pleasing outcome for the visitors on a day when some of their bowlers, particularly Morne Morkel, struggled to find the right length.

"We had to put in a lot of hard work today because the heavy outfield makes a huge difference," Ntini said. "As a batting side you always want to make sure that on the first day you have to pass 300. So for us I should say we've done very well not to let them pass 300 on the first day. We will take that day as a job well done."

Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo