Lee's two-wicket burst gives Australia the advantage
Brett Lee showed South Africa the value of early dismissals as Australia's late surge followed a hard-working batting performance in the first Test at Cape Town. Whereas the home side failed to make an immediate impact on a helpful pitch, Lee struck twice in his third over to maintain his side's push and by stumps they had three second-innings wickets and a lead of 33.
On a day when their bowlers should have dominated with wickets instead of forcing tens of plays, misses and miscues, South Africa waited until after lunch to make a serious move and it came just in time as Australia threatened to sprint away. Matthew Hayden held up the top with a hard-working 94 and his 154-run partnership with Ricky Ponting, who benefited from a collection of fielding lapses, was a highlight in a game where penetrative bowling has been far easier than dominating batting.
While two of Australia's senior batsmen stood firm and were prepared to look ugly in their defiance, the uncertain middle order, which has been dismantled, patched up and rearranged during the summer, gave up some of the gains when losing 4 for 51 from the comfort of 175 for 1. Without Andrew Symonds's 47-ball 55 - a typically bright, brutal and terminally irresponsible display - Australia's advantage would have been minor, but with his muscle, which included three sixes in one Nicky Boje over that cost 22, they earned a 103-run buffer.
Ponting briefed his batsmen about the dangers of reverse-swing before the Test and it was a relevant discussion as the ball weaved in arcs and angles reminiscent of last year's Ashes series. Australia fared better this time but they were still troubled by an attack that hit back from their lack of morning fortune. South Africa's bowlers performed strongly without important early help from their catchers or Smith's field placings and the movement in the air and off the pitch caused sustained problems for new and settled batsmen.
Hayden's patience wore out after lunch and his almost four hours of toil ended six runs short of a century that would have recognised application instead of quality. Both Hayden and Ponting were content to graft and defend in the hope things would get easier, but they didn't. Ponting benefited from a dropped catch from Andre Nel, a malfunctioning slip cordon and a rare mistake from the umpire Billy Doctrove before departing for 74 to the last ball before lunch. His partner's stay was slightly less streaky and after 14 fours and an off-driven six from Boje, Hayden left when a top-edged pull floated to Jacques Rudolph running in from deep midwicket.
South Africa sensed their opportunity and elbowed through the middle. Until then their main weakness was the failure of catches going to hand, especially in the slips, and the frustration of chances falling consistently short was voiced loudly by Smith after Martyn had escaped. "Please make the ball fricken carry," Smith yelled near the stump microphone. It was hard to feel sorry for him as the opportunities were regular and the obvious option was for the cordon to stand closer to the batsman.
However, Smith's plea was heard and Michael Hussey (9) and Damien Martyn, whose Test return ended with a flashing cut shot on 22, edged to Mark Boucher while Adam Gilchrist was cramped into forcing a catch to Smith at first slip. Gilchrist's subdued streak continued with his 12 and Australia were stumbling at 272 for 6.
Helped by Symonds's loose dismissal to Boje, South Africa finished the innings quickly and prepared for their reply in a buoyant mood. Andrew Hall was the best and unluckiest bowler - he suffered most with nicks dropping short and picked up only Hussey - while Jacques Kallis showed his all-round value by grabbing Ponting, Martyn and Gilchrist in two short spells before the main breaks. Kallis's unbeaten 31 will need to grow to three figures if the Proteas want to feel secure.
For the batsmen, the whole day was a scrap as they watched the ball curve and jag. They rarely had full belief in their footsteps and follow-throughs and it produced gripping entertainment after Australia began at 63 for 1. Giving up 112 runs in the first session, South Africa's mood copied Nel's as he growled and grumbled at his misfortune from a stream of near-misses. It took the wickets of Hussey, Martyn and Gilchrist to return some spark, but Lee soon doused it by claiming AB de Villiers's inside edge and knocking over Herschelle Gibbs's off stump with a fierce off-cutter.
Lee also landed an important punch when he struck Smith's hand with a short ball, but the crucial blow was delivered to the captain by Shane Warne in his opening over. With the surface spinning as well as seaming, South Africa face a difficult task to set a competitive target.
Ricky Ponting c Hall b Kallis 74 (175 for 2)
Drove away from his body to short cover
Matthew Hayden c Rudolph b Ntini 94 (192 for 3)
Top-edged half-pull to deepish midwicket
Michael Hussey c Boucher b Hall 6 (214 for 4)
Drove at a full and wide one moving away slightly
Damien Martyn c Boucher b Kallis 22 (236 for 5)
Edged a cut shot for Kallis's second breakthrough
Adam Gilchrist c Smith b Kallis 12 (272 for 6)
Cramped cut shot with bowler coming around the wicket
Andrew Symonds c Nel b Boje 55 (294 for 7)
Down the pitch trying for a fifth six, he skied to long-off
Brett Lee c Gibbs b Ntini 0 (294 for 8)
Pushed to gully
Shane Warne c de Villiers b Boje 7 (296 for 9)
Holed out to mid-on
Stuart Clark c Gibbs b Nel 8 (308)
Dabbed to gully
AB de Villiers c Gilchrist b Lee 7 (20 for 1)
Inside edge driving and surprised wicketkeeper accepted left-handed take
Herschelle Gibbs b Lee 0 (20 for 2)
Slow to judge quick off-cutter; limp defensive effort
Graeme Smith lbw Warne 16 (37 for 3)
Played right back to big-turning legspinner
Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo