South Africa v Australia, 1st Test, Centurion, 1st day February 13, 2014

Worrying signs for South Africa's top order

It is too early to draw any long-term conclusions, but the home side's top order was given a rude awakening about the challenges facing them from Australia

Cullinan: Advantage Australia, and not just on the scoreboard

A shave over six years ago, South Africa crumbled to 63 for 4 against the touring West Indies in Port Elizabeth. A combination of seam and swing from Daren Powell and Jerome Taylor destroyed the top order and eventually accounted for the rest as well. The only South African batsman who managed more than 30 that day was AB de Villiers who fought himself to a plucky 59.

That was the last time South Africa had four of their batsmen out in the first 15 overs of a Test innings before today. This time it was vicious pace and an unforgiving short ball from Mitchell Johnson that sparked the procession. Again, the only South Africa batsman who showed there is a way was de Villiers.

He worked his way to a half-century with a combination of cautiousness and counterattack that could serve as an illustration of how much he has progressed from December 2007 but more importantly, could be an example to his team-mates for how they should approach Johnson as this series develops. For all South Africa's preparedness, even Russell Domingo admitted that they could "never replicate," Johnson in the nets and nothing "prepared you for the intensity of a Test match" and the "pressure you will face there."

Even though Johnson has broken Graeme Smith's hand twice, both times with a short ball that reared up and struck him on the glove, Smith was not ready for that delivery again. Who can be? It is like asking someone to be ready for a rush of oncoming traffic when they are behind the wheel. In the end, he may well have just been grateful his hand was intact when he walked off.

Even though Alviro Petersen would have seen a far less dangerous Johnson on Australia's last tour here in 2011 - Petersen played in the warm-up match but not the Tests - he would have been told to expect a different man. In the end, the ball he got out to was not laced with venom, it was just short and wide and he did not have to play at it. Maybe he was too concerned with looking out for the nasty one that he forgot how to deal with the nice one.

Even though Faf du Plessis knew he would be targeted, it still unnerved him. He was squared up by the first Johnson delivery and the edge fell just short of second slip. Four balls later, Johnson became too brutal and du Plessis could do nothing about it. It does not mean he should not be persisted with as the new No.4, it just every now and then he will have to live with getting a snorter like that.

Even though the first ball de Villiers faced was a Johnson one, he immediately looked less rattled. Granted, it was not a short ball and he only had to get forward and defend but he did. It did not take too long for Johnson to hold his length back and de Villiers got inside the line and defended again.

The others had not been particularly poor in identifying Johnson's line but where they erred was where de Villiers prospered. Unlike at St George's Park, when he was only 22, de Villiers did not play at deliveries he could have left. He dutifully left them, something South Africa's batsmen did not do enough against the Johnson short ball.

His maturity and ability to assess the situation is what stood out about his innings. No other batsman appeared to have the time he did to play a Johnson ball that was directed at eye level, no one seemed to be able to adjust well enough so that two balls later when Johnson over-pitched, they could move forward and drive him for four.

JP Duminy came closest, although he was beaten for pace by Johnson far more often than de Villiers. He gave it away when instead of attacking Nathan Lyon selectively, he tried to do it routinely. Eventually those go wrong and it did. With Duminy gone, it fell on de Villiers solely to steer South Africa to calmer water.

Johnson knew that and he also knew if he could somehow get in de Villiers' way, he could sway the advantage even further Australia's way. He did that when he managed to deceive de Villiers into playing a pull too early and struck him on the forearm. There was grimacing. There was flexing of fingers of a hand that seemed to have gone numb. And there was a stony expression on his face that de Villiers maintained to try and hide the pain.

Unlike the three before him, he did not want to give Johnson a hint that he may have caused a mental scar. That was the weapon used to dismantle England and they helped him by wilting at the sight of him. Whether Johnson has managed to inflict the same on Smith, Petersen and du Plessis will only be known in the next innings or even the next match but it is unlikely he has done the same to de Villiers.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent