A superb century on debut from Marcus North and a thrilling boundary-filled innings from Mitchell Johnson allowed Australia to take charge of the opening Test at the Wanderers, and the feel-good factor was enhanced in a final session in which they grabbed three wickets and reduced the run-rate to a crawl. Two century partnerships, both involving North, were followed by a stunning 53-run stand between Johnson and Peter Siddle, which included 26 from a Paul Harris over. Ben Hilfenhaus then took a wicket with his second ball in Test cricket as a glum crowd looked on, and it was clear that if South Africa are to wrest that No.1 ranking, they'll have to do it the hard way.
In 132 years of Test cricket, only 18 Australian batsmen have made centuries on debut. Michael Clarke was the last, in Bangalore in 2004, and North joined that select band with a wonderfully mature innings that allowed his team to take firm control. His 117 spanned nearly three sessions and 233 balls, and it was the 113-run partnership with Brad Haddin that changed the complexion of the match. The 117 that he went on to add with Johnson for the eighth wicket was a record for Australia against South Africa, and both stands served to highlight the maturity and composure of his batting.
At 29, he's no greenhorn and he came into this Test with 8880 first-class runs behind him. As much as the fluent drives and the precise sweeps against the slow bowlers, what was really notable was his judgment of which deliveries to leave. There were few wild wafts, and initial circumspection gave way to much more positivity after lunch.
Australia had added 97 in 33 overs in an extended opening session, but caution was quickly abandoned after the interval. Johnson's aggression took the pressure off, and a deft dab behind point for three off JP Duminy got North to three figures from 207 balls. Soon after, he survived a vociferous appeal for leg-before from the same bowler, and South Africa's feeling of anguish deepened when Johnson then thwacked one over long-on for six.
Minutes later, another huge six took Johnson to 50 from 100 balls, and Graeme Smith then turned to Paul Harris, who had been standing idle while Duminy spun his offbreaks. North swept him for four, but a bit of extra flight from Harris then did the trick. North was stranded down the pitch going for the big hit, and South Africa must have thought their misery was over.
Far from it. Harris had bowled tidily up till then, but when Johnson decided to take him on, there was no answer. Two fours and three sixes were struck in an arc between square leg and long-on, with the last hit clearing the stadium walls. Dale Steyn wasn't spared either, with an edge over slips being followed by clubbed hits over mid-off and mid-on.
He was left stranded on 96 though, with Peter Siddle nicking Morne Morkel to second slip. A delivery earlier, Morkel had overstepped and Siddle had played the very same stroke. So much for learning from mistakes. Johnson was then a rueful onlooker as Hilfenhaus edged the first ball he faced to third slip.
Whatever frustration he felt was unleashed on South Africa's batsmen though. Graeme Smith edged a perfectly pitched away-going delivery, and when Hilfenhaus got Hashim Amla to play a similar stroke, South Africa were rocking. Jacques Kallis pushed one to cover to get to 10,000 runs and then took Peter Siddle for three fours in an over, but an attempt to drive a fourth behind point only found Michael Hussey at gully.
Apart from a cut and a square-drive off Siddle, Neil McKenzie was largely becalmed, and even AB de Villiers was noticeably subdued with the Australians bowling such tight lines. Hilfenhaus was the pick of the bunch, and there were signs towards the end of play that North might be a factor with his offspin as well.
Australia had started the day in sedate fashion, and South Africa got themselves a lifeline with the second new ball. A pleasing straight drive off Steyn signalled Haddin's intent, but there was nothing distinguished about the cross-batted slog to mid-on that cost him his wicket for 63.
When Steyn then produced a perfect outswinger to send McDonald back for a duck [296 for 7], South Africa might have envisioned a quick wrap. And it might have been the case had Lonwabo Tsotsobe hit the stumps with Johnson struggling to complete the single that got him off the mark.
Johnson made South Africa regret the lapse soon enough, with a hefty pull for four off Kallis and a magnificent drive through cover. An edge through gully off Morkel further frustrated the South Africans, and when North hit the shot of the morning, an imperious push through the covers off Kallis, the complexion of the match was looking very different from what it had 24 hours earlier. By stumps, it was as if Australia's travails of the past few months had just been a bad dream.