South Africa v Australia, 1st Test, Centurion, 1st day February 12, 2014

South Africa lack their Centurion spark

South Africa were not awful on the opening day, but from a position where they had Australia in significant trouble the attack could not ram home the advantage and back Graeme Smith's decision to bowl

Cullinan: Bowlers did not back captain's decision

At the start of the third over after tea, Morne Morkel presented Steven Smith with the equivalent of ice-cream to a child: a short, wide delivery. There was no third man. Smith gave himself a bit of room, flicked his wrists and ramped the ball to the vacant area. He looked a man in complete control of what he was doing; Morkel, Graeme Smith and South Africa, the opposite.

There was nothing they could to about that shot. They did not have a man stationed there, the ball invited it the stroke, the batsman trusted himself to play and it was well-placed. For much of the rest of the afternoon that is what South Africa dealt with from Smith and Shaun Marsh. The pair played meticulously crafted innings on a pitch that became easier to bat on against an attack that did not appear to have as many plan b's as they said they would.

The evidence was there earlier. Before lunch, South Africa used all five frontline bowlers including the specialist spinner. Dale Steyn had bowled four overs, changed ends and bowled some more and there was an instance in which this website's Jarrod Kimber swears a field was set for a Morne Morkel's off-side and leg-side plan at the same time.

Despite that, they used the short ball well and it earned them two of the three wickets they took in that session and the key one they took afterwards of Michael Clarke. After reducing the opposition to 98 for 4, South Africa had done their bit to justify both Smith's decision to bowl first, despite his slight uncertainty, and his signal to show intent.

Smith is the captain who has bowled first the most in Test history after winning the toss - 19 times - although he has captained in many more matches than the other skippers. He has taken to doing it more since November 2011 than he did before then, which is the time Gary Kirsten took over and South Africa's attack began to build the reputation they currently have.

Since then, Smith has fielded first five times of the 13 tosses he has won, compared with 11 times in 46 correct coin calls earlier. That's 14% more of the time and with the bowlers' recent records, who can blame him? On six of the last seven occasions Smith has won the toss and put his opposition in, South Africa have won the match. That includes two instances at Centurion Park.

South Africa bowled India out for 136 in 2010, on a day when rain meant they could only get 38.1 overs in. They bowled Sri Lanka for 180 a year later. They won both matches by an innings.

The difference is that this time their opposition was neither India nor Sri Lanka and although Australia's batsmen had given the impression South African pitches worry them, there was minimal sideways movement to bother them. They also lasted long enough to take advantage of the easier conditions that came as the strip baked in the Highveld heat.

That was when Marsh, who was a master at leaving early on, and Steven Smith's patience paid off. They were able to build something because South Africa could not tear it down.

Robin Peterson did not help. He was warned he would be targeted and he did not seem to be doing anything to guard against that. He lacked control and battled to find a proper line. Vernon Philander did not help. His usually miserly fourth stump line and teasing length gave way to a few too wide and a few too short. Ryan McLaren did not help. He offered consistency but nothing special. But what hurt South Africa most was probably Steyn's illness. Although he bowled more overs than anyone else, he could not reach maximum speed.

The sole remaining option was JP Duminy and he was only brought on half an hour after tea in the 63rd over. He stayed on until the second new ball, a 10-over spell in which he posed little threat because he tossed it up generously. That meant the spinners between them conceded 68 runs in 20 overs, without taking a wicket, easily South Africa's biggest liability on the day.

By the time the new ball was available, Steyn and Morkel were interested only in seeing the day out. The eight overs cost 34 runs, with Australia scoring at a quicker rate than they had all day. Fair to say South Africa had had enough by then but that does not mean they will not have refuelled come the morning.

Without repeating often stated facts as many times as a Katy Perry song on commercial radio, it is worth reminding you that South Africa's attack cannot be written off. Two examples are enough to jog the memory: The Oval 2012 and the Wanderers 2013.

In the former England went from an overnight score on day one of 267 for 3, with Alastair Cook on an unbeaten century and found themselves 385 all out the next day before South Africa piled on the 637 for 2 and won by an innings. In the latter, India ended the first day on 255 for 5 and lost their remaining batsmen for 35 runs to finish 280 all out, before South Africa pulled off a draw.

Steyn made the breakthrough in the first instance and Morkel cleaned up while Morkel struck early in Johannesburg to allow Philander to rip through the tail. Do not be surprised if the trio concoct something similar this time.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent