Ntini and Shoaib star on dramatic day
The pattern of the day went against most predictions with the St George's Park surface usually providing hard toil for the bowlers. This track started with an even covering of grass but Graeme Smith had no hesitation in batting first. However, there was no sustained period where the batsmen dominated and Ntini's fourth wicket, the vital scalp of Younis Khan which leaves him on 299 Test victims, breathed new life into South Africa. When Andre Nel added Kamran Akmal with the final ball of the day the game was back in the balance.
Ntini's thunderous new-ball burst had countered a similarly destructive effort from Shoaib, who arrived back onto the scene in similar style to Mohammad Asif last week by claiming key wickets. Before tea Ntini removed Imran Farhat, fencing to slip, and Mohammad Hafeez, lobbing a ball to short leg, then added Yasir Hameed as Pakistan stumbled to 19 for 3.
Suddenly South Africa's meagre total grew in significance and even someone of Yousuf's class found the going tough early on after his recent time away. Slowly he regained the touch that brought him a record 1788 Test runs in 2006. The bowlers were already becoming resigned to a long stint trying to dislodge him, but just in the nick of time Shaun Pollock nipped one back off the seam to trap him leg before.
With Inzamam-ul-Haq unable to bat in his normal position after being off the field with a shoulder problem Akmal came in at No.6. His sparky innings helped nudge Pakistan into a slender lead, but with his late dismissal Pakistan wasted a golden opportunity to take a firm grip on the match.
Pakistan looked a more formidable force from the moment Shoaib and Yousuf were named on the team sheet at the toss. Whatever is said about Shoaib, and the circus that surrounds his career, he is an irresistible cricketer to watch. He opened his wicket tally courtesy of an awful pull from the horribly out-of-sorts AB de Villiers and soon added Hashim Amla via a glove down the leg side.
Shoaib's main support came from Danish Kaneria, who'd been introduced into the attack for the 13th over as Inzamam tried to work out his best combinations. The move paid off when Smith edged to slip, and the in-form Ashwell Prince didn't last long before flashing Sami high to Farhat, again in the slips. An under-pressure Herschelle Gibbs tried to switch his focus back to cricket after the controversies of the past week but never appeared settled at the crease. He fell to a wild sweep the ball after Akmal had spilled his second chance of the morning.
Mark Boucher counter-attacked bravely in the afternoon, but the best stand of the innings was just the 31 he added for the eighth wicket with Nel. Kaneria bagged his third as Boucher swung wildly and edged to slip before the legspinner showed unknown athleticism at long leg to cling onto Nel's hook shot.
South Africa refused to dwell on their batsmen's failings and set about hauling themselves back into a gripping contest. The money men won't be thrilled by the prospect of a short match, but this was a day of Test cricket at its exhilarating best.
Andrew McGlashan is editorial assistant of Cricinfo