South Africa eye lead despite Hussey rescue act
A lower-order push led by Michael Hussey limited the damage of Makhaya Ntini's five-wicket demolition on a frenetic second day at Johannesburg. In a ten-over opening spell Ntini effectively took care of the top five - Justin Langer was forced to retire hurt with concussion from the first ball of the innings - and Australia were in desperate trouble at 106 for 5 when Hussey grabbed his cape to collect an invaluable 73.
The only one of Australia's main batsmen to apply a thoughtful and considered approach, Hussey worked impressively with the tail and they cut the lead to 57 as they posted 246 for 7. Hussey shared crucial stands of 68 with Shane Warne and another 68 with Brett Lee as they chased South Africa's highly competitive 303, which was set up by a fantastic 93 from Ashwell Prince. Prince and Hussey were both prepared to wait around on a severe surface and mix defence with attack instead of focusing solely on boundaries.
From the moment Langer disappeared, Australia's top-order outlook was as wobbly as the opening batsman when he left the ground and they suffered regular setbacks despite scoring at a lively pace. Playing in a manner that would surely have been ditched if the series was still alive, Australia were 89 in the 17th over when Andrew Symonds became Ntini's fourth victim of a brutal spell. He finished with 5 for 80 from 16.2 overs and had Australia on the floor, but his team-mates couldn't keep them there.
Ntini exploited the pitch by darting the ball in both directions as he charged through with 4 for 52 in his opening effort and caused more trouble on his return to collect his 11th five-wicket haul. Matthew Hayden, who had assisted his hurt friend Langer, edged to Herschelle Gibbs on 3 while Ricky Ponting and Damien Martyn tried to counter-punch in a short stand of 58 at seven an over.
It is rare for Martyn to hook but today he wanted to punish everything and while he belted one six off Ntini, he missed trying for another from the same bowler and was caught at mid-on for 21 from 23 balls. The innings was not one of a man who returned to the side only three Tests ago and hasn't re-established himself. More unfamiliar performances followed as Ponting, who belted a six and five fours in his 34, pushed hard and fell to a sharp catch from AB de Villiers while Symonds (4) and Adam Gilchrist - he pulled Andre Nel to deep square leg on 12 - went cheaply. The game appeared to be hit out or get out, except for Hussey.
Hussey has become a master at working with the tail and he was able to cajole Warne to 36 before he was Ntini's fifth wicket. Lee also provided a useful and aggressive innings, cutting Ntini for six and posting four fours in his 42. Working over 153 balls and adding 11 boundaries, Hussey slipped against Nicky Boje's spin, but he left having played the solid innings Australia required after losing so many wickets and a crucial batsman to a serious injury.
After taking two catches, Langer's 100th Test quickly became a painful experience when he was struck in the helmet by Ntini. Langer crouched to the ground and quickly ended up on his back before the medical staff ran out to treat him. Helped to his feet with a small cut to his head that would need two stitches, Langer looked dizzy and had to be escorted off the ground.
He slowed to receive a condition check from Ntini and was taken to hospital for tests before apparently heading back to the hotel to rest. A hit on the helmet has become a strange tradition for Langer in milestone matches; Ian Bishop landed one on his Test debut and Andy Caddick forced him to retire hurt on his return to the team at The Oval in 2001.
The helpful pitch made work hard for all the batsmen and while Prince, who resumed this morning on 79 after fighting superbly on day one, played some attractive shots he was still unable to conquer the conditions. Prince was beaten the ball before falling to Lee, and the bowler followed up with a verbal autopsy of his batting. The conclusion seemed to be that Prince didn't deserve a century and Lee cut him down with a sharp edge to Langer to end an important innings.
Stuart Clark, who picked up 3 for 81, had already removed Shaun Pollock and Australia were looking for a quick conclusion. Boje delayed their charge with a powerful 43 as he helped push his side past 300, and he was last man out for 43 to Michael Kasprowicz (2 for 86) while Lee, who was a consistent threat, collected 3 for 57.
All the bowlers were out-performed by Ntini's brilliance in a day full of action on a pitch where playing and missing was the norm instead of the exception. Ntini ended play when he struck Lee on the body and the light was offered despite the sun still shining. The grim mood of the Australians had improved with Hussey's composure and the late surge that placed the match at a gripping stage.
Matthew Hayden c Gibbs b Ntini 3 (12 for 1)
Another loose drive and a sharp take at gully
Damien Martyn c Nel b Ntini 21 (68 for 2)
Miscued pull shot high to mid-on
Ricky Ponting c de Villiers b Ntini 34 (73 for 3)
Played forward and another sharp slips catch at third
Andrew Symonds lbw Ntini 4 (89 for 4)
Angled in from wide of the crease
Adam Gilchrist c Rudolph b Nel 12 (106 for 5)
Pulled straight to deep square leg
Shane Warne c Pollock b Ntini 36 (174 for 6)
Clipped hook shot to fine leg
Michael Hussey lbw Boje 73 (242 for 7)
Caught in front missing defensive shot
AB de Villiers c Martyn b Clark 12 (26 for 1)
Lazy drive to mid-off and taken low down
Herschelle Gibbs b Kasprowicz 16 (38 for 2)
Left off-cutter that was never missing middle
Boeta Dippenaar c Gilchrist b Clark 32 (97 for 3)
Edged an attempted cover drive on the up
Jacques Kallis b Lee 37 (106 for 4)
Brutal off-cutter brushed pad on way to stumps
Jacques Rudolph c Hayden b Warne 25 (161 for 5)
Didn't picked wrong'un and nicked to first slip; questions over whether it carried
Mark Boucher lbw Symonds 24 (233 for 6)
Angling in, hit on front pad and a long way forward
Shaun Pollock c Ponting b Clark 8 (251 for 7)
Driving without footwork and flew to second slip
Ashwell Prince c Langer b Lee 93 (285 for 8)
Around the wicket, playing away from his body and sharp edge to second slip
Andre Nel c Martyn b Lee 0 (303 for 9)
Stepped away for wild slog that skyed to mid-off
Nicky Boje c Langer b Kasprowicz 43 (303)
Glided off back foot to gully
Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo