South Africa on top despite Clarke's fight
There was more than a hint of déjà vu at the SCG, where Australia's top order spluttered against a probing South Africa before looking to Michael Clarke for a rescue mission on a slow-moving first day. None of South Africa's bowlers dominated individually but as a group they maintained the pressure and showed why their team could be the No. 1-ranked Test side within four days.
At the MCG last week, South Africa considered Australia's 6 for 280 at stumps on day one as below par having chosen to bat. The Sydney pitch was friendlier but South Africa's attack was just as hostile and they stuck to their plans until late in the afternoon to keep Australia to 6 for 267.
The evenness of South Africa's bowling was impressive. At the fall of the fifth wicket the five bowlers had one victim each and the first multiple wicket-taker arrived only when Dale Steyn swung the new ball perfectly past the bat of Brad Haddin (38) and into off stump with 25 minutes left in the day.
The 75-run partnership that Haddin and Clarke built had started to paper over some of the cracks in Australia's top order, which have been evident all summer. Throughout the series, Australia's bowlers have copped their share of criticism but it's the batsmen who have created some of the most serious messes and the lower order can do only so much mopping up.
In the first two Tests Australia's average score at the fall of the fifth wicket - that is, when specialist batsmen were no longer at both ends - was a disappointing 170. This time they found themselves at 5 for 162 before Clarke and Haddin started the salvage operation.
Haddin was typically aggressive against the spinner Paul Harris, who he dispatched over the leg side for two fours and a six. Clarke put away some punchy drives and showed glimpses of his flair but was generally watchful and happy to post his first Test half-century at his home ground in Sydney having been put down at mid-on by Makhaya Ntini when he was on 12.
The pair needed to show some fight after several of the top six made starts but failed to go on. The debutant Andrew McDonald was sent in at No. 6 and had an eventful start to his Test career. McDonald was clearly nervous and took his first ball on the elbow from Morne Morkel before edging his third ball just short of second slip.
Worse was to come when he ducked into a Morkel bouncer that crashed into his helmet, which flew off his head and sailed safely over the stumps. McDonald clipped Harris confidently through leg to reach 15 but was never fully at ease against the fast men and having been pushed back by short stuff, fell to Ntini when he edged a fuller ball behind.
In fairness it was a tough ask for McDonald, an allrounder with two first-class centuries to his name, to come in at 4 for 130 against an attack that had just made Michael Hussey, Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting look like club cricketers. Hayden and Hussey tried valiantly to bat their way out of their respective slumps but were frustrated not to go further than their scores of 31 and 30.
Neither man looked totally comfortable as they carefully helped each other through a 46-run partnership. In the end the relentless pressure from South Africa proved too great. Hayden departed after an eight-over period in which he had only faced 14 balls and the extended time at the non-strikers' end affected his concentration.
Steyn picked up the well-deserved wicket at the tail-end of an impressive spell when he lured a flat-footed Hayden into a drive outside off that flew off the inside edge and back onto his stumps. His 31 from 78 balls had featured a couple of strong drives down the ground but it was a scratchy innings, as was Hussey's 30 from 99 deliveries.
Hussey edged a straight ball from Harris - there weren't many that turned - to slip and it left Australia in a hole. The initial signs had been good when Simon Katich hit his straps early. Katich dominated the second 50-run opening partnership he and Hayden had achieved in Tests and he raced to 47 from 52 balls.
He showed his impressive timing when he drove down the ground and he flicked through leg with precision, using the inswing against Steyn, who came around the wicket. But when Jacques Kallis found some extra bounce and moved the ball away, Katich drove hard and was caught at second slip.
Australia's 1 for 62 became 2 for 63 when Ponting fell for a golden duck in the next over. South Africa know the trouble that Ponting has against fast men who jag the ball back in - think Ishant Sharma and Ntini - and Morkel exploited the weakness when he found an inside edge with a delivery that nipped back off the seam.
It was not what the captain had expected when he chose to bat on a pitch that shouldn't have created too much drama for the batsmen. But South Africa's fast men swung the ball, kept the run-flow tight, reaped the rewards and edged their way closer to the No. 1 Test ranking.
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo