South Africa v Australia, 3rd Test, Cape Town, 1st day March 1, 2014

Warner and Clarke put Australia on top

Australia 331 for 3 (Warner 135, Clarke 92*, Smith 50*) v South Africa
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details

Ordinarily, a near run-a-ball 135 from David Warner, or the sidelining of Dale Steyn with a rare injury would be the defining moment of a day's play. Both of those certainly contributed to Australia's dominance on the first day of the series decider in Cape Town, but the image that will linger longer was the sight of Morne Morkel tenderising Michael Clarke during a brutal spell of short-pitched bowling. And of Clarke surviving, fighting through it and reaching stumps within sight of a century.

If he should reach it, it will be one of his finest Test hundreds. Not for the class of his strokeplay but for his first-rate bloody-mindedness. The fact that Clarke survived Morkel's assault with his wicket and bone structure intact was a victory for Australia, albeit a painful one, and by stumps the Australians had moved on to 331 for 3 and they had a well-settled Clarke at the crease on 92 alongside Steven Smith on 50.

Their partnership had grown to 114 and although Morkel asked some more questions late in the afternoon with the second new ball, including jarring Clarke on the thumb with another short ball that led to a visit from the physio, South Africa managed no more than one wicket per session. They sorely missed Steyn, who limped off with a hamstring strain after bowling the first ball of his 11th over, and his ability to bowl for the rest of the match remained in doubt.

Steyn's fitness is the stuff of legend - he has missed only one Test in the past five and a half years - but there could hardly be a worse time for him to succumb, with a series on the line. Initially it was he who probed Clarke early in his innings, but then it was Morkel who sustained an around-the-wicket line and peppered him with short deliveries that struck him all over the body.

Much like South Africa's batsmen against Mitchell Johnson in the first Test in Centurion, Clarke knew what was coming but was unable to find a comfortable way of handling it. With no half-centuries in his past 11 innings, Clarke was searching for a purple patch, but not the kind that Morkel caused on his left forerarm after banging in a few short ones that left the Australian captain bruised.

Worse for Clarke was the blow he took on the left jaw after he failed to get out of the way of another 147kph Morkel bouncer that ricocheted off his shoulder and up under the helmet, bringing the physio immediately on to the ground. Clarke remained at the crease, though, although he was lucky to survive the very next ball when another Morkel bumper lobbed off his gloves and narrowly missed the stumps while also evading the short-leg fieldsman.

But for all of that, Morkel did not get his man, and remained wicketless at stumps. Clarke started to find some relief, and some runs, and eventually reached his half-century from his 122nd delivery. Late in the day, Clarke was able to latch on to a couple of short balls from Morkel, pulling and cutting him for boundaries that screamed revenge, and it was a fine way to end a day that began with him winning the toss and choosing to bat at a venue where Australia were last dismissed for 47.

Clarke had strong support from Smith, who struck six fours and one six and reached his fifty from his 91st delivery, upper-cutting Morkel over the cordon for four in the penultimate over of the day. But it was Warner who really set Australia on their path with 135 from 152 balls, his first century in the first innings of a Test since South Africa visited Australia in late 2012. He brought up the milestone from his 104th ball with a pull fine for four off the bowling of Kyle Abbott.

Warner was the dominant partner in all three of his half-century stands, first 65 with Chris Rogers, then 73 with Alex Doolan and finally a 79-run combination with Clarke, who moved back up to No.4 to accommodate Shane Watson at No.6. Despite striking 12 fours and a six, Warner rarely took a silly risk to maintain his high strike-rate.

He began quickly with three fours in the sixth over against Philander - an upper cut and a couple of pulls - although he nearly became overconfident and on the last ball of that over was fortunate to survive a leading edge that lobbed just over the head of cover. Warner was strong when driving, cutting and pulling, and there seemed little South Africa could do to slow his progress as he rotated the strike throughout all his partnerships.

He brought up his half-century from exactly 50 balls with a rare five, when he took a sharp single off Steyn and picked up four overthrows when Philander's throw ricocheted off the stumps and away to the boundary. Before tea, South Africa had to settle for the wickets of Rogers and Doolan, both of whom made starts but failed to go on.

Rogers looked solid in reaching 25 from 41 balls before he edged to slip in the first over of Steyn's second spell, and Doolan had 20 when he pulled a Philander delivery that was too full and skied a catch to mid-on. It became one wicket per session for South Africa when Warner tickled an edge behind off JP Duminy after tea, but Clarke and Smith ensured 217 for 3 did not become five or six down. And in doing so, Clarke gave the spectators something to remember.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here