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

Warner, Clarke get tough

David Warner and Michael Clarke produced arguably two of their finest knocks to lift Australia into a commanding position in Cape Town

When pondering how David Warner might respond to a raft of South African sledging expected to come his way in this match due to his howled down allegation of ball tampering, Michael Clarke offered his opening batsman the inelegant but appropriate sobriquet of "tough bugger".

On the critically important opening day of the Newlands Test, Warner lived up to Clarke's choice of words with arguably his finest Test hundred, but no more so than the captain himself, who carved out an innings of enormous courage and presence.

There had been many reasons entering into this match for both Warner and Clarke to be distracted, even agitated. Warner had earned the rebukes of teammates, opponents and officials alike for his broadcast suggestion of sharp practice on the part of AB de Villiers.

It was certainly provocative and formally deemed disrespectful, drawing an ICC sanction and the sorts of headlines that have followed his career a little too often. The South Africans had plenty of reason to pour on the vitriol once Warner strode to the wicket.

Clarke's problems were of a different and deeper nature. In order to overcome his immediate difficulty - a lack of runs over his past 11 innings - Clarke had to surmount a longer term foible, namely the spectre of short-pitched bowling and its capacity to expose the lack of flexibility in his back.

The man to deliver such bowling was Morne Morkel, a man with no rival as the fastest and tallest exponent of the bouncer in world cricket. Add to this the chance to defeat top-ranked South Africa at home, and the occasion weighed heavily.

Fortunately for Clarke and Warner, the captain performed ably in his first duty of the day, winning one of the more important tosses of his life. Centurion and Port Elizabeth had well and truly established Australia's preference for making the running by batting first, particularly on a pitch not given to early life. Taking first strike in Cape Town on another late-season surface promising little in the way of sideways movement allowed the fast-scoring method preached by the coach Darren Lehmann to place pressure on South Africa, even as they carried plenty of momentum from St George's Park.

Irrespective of the prevailing conditions, the runs still had to be scored, and in the early overs Warner once again too the initiative from the hosts with some help from Chris Rogers. They raised a half-century stand inside 10 overs, prompting Graeme Smith to disperse his catching men and post sweepers to the boundary in search of greater control over the scoring rate. To some degree he achieved this, but he also allowed Warner the room to feel more or less impervious to dismissal, given so many options for turning over the strike.

Across the series, Warner has repeatedly forced Smith's fielders back, to the point that his latter phases of centuries at Centurion and Newlands have been played out in the manner of mid-innings ODI batting. Very little onus has been placed on Warner to split the field or avoid the clutches of slips or gully, allowing him to throttle back into a gear of comfort while still scoring rapidly. Ten boundaries in Warner's century were the minimum to be expected from a powerful opener on a fast outfield, but a strike rate of near enough to a run-a-ball showed how Warner had hemmed in Smith, rather than the other way round.

"He puts pressure on the opposition so quickly," Shane Warne said of Warner. "Duminy was bowling in the 10th over so very early you've got a part-time spinner bowling. It just puts pressure on the opposition captain by how fast he scores and the way he scores. I saw maturity in his batting when Graeme Smith had point back and he got a couple of singles, Smith brought point up and he hit two fours past him. It wasn't like he was just about smashing the ball, he was quite clever about it.

"One of the hardest things as a bowler is if you go through all your plans and say 'we've just got to stop this guy scoring for a while' and when he manipulates the field it is a really tough spot to be in as captain. Someone like a Darren Lehmann when you used to bowl against him he'd manipulate the field very well. Smithy ended up just being defensive about stopping runs, then Davey can just knock it around. He can do that to a captain because he's such a good player."

If Warner was in command of his game, then Clarke was on bended knee beseeching his to comply with his fervent wishes for a score. His early play was scratchy, and when Morkel chose to go around the wicket, Clarke found himself with no escape. Not limber enough to duck or sway easily, nor swivel to hook in the manner of Ian Chappell, Clarke was instead battered after the fashion of Steve Waugh. Neck, jaw, body and fingers all took fearsome blows, the icepacks piling high in Australia's dressing room to greet Clarke whenever he returned.

But Morkel was unable to follow up these raining blows by coaxing an outside edge or a miscue, Clarke's determination underlined by the perfunctory wave he offered the physio Alex Kountouris and doctor Peter Brukner when they jogged onto the field at the end of the over when Morkel felled him. Warne called it batting in the "over my dead body" category, and there was scarcely a better way to describe it. Clarke stood firm, untroubled by how ugly he looked, and with Dale Steyn absent due to a hamstring complaint he was able to endure.

By stumps Clarke was on the outskirts of a century to rank with any in his career, his unbeaten status a fitting capstone on one of the best Australian first innings, first day performances of Ricky Ponting's prime period. Every partnership had been worth at least 50, meaning even the likes of Rogers and Alex Doolan had played some part. But it was Clarke and Warner who deserved the chief plaudits, two "tough buggers" setting aside their earlier travails to set Australia on the path towards the sort of victory that would echo down the years.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here