March 11, 2002

Australia have noses in front going into last day at Newlands

Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden battered open the door to a series-clinching Australian victory in the second Castle Lager/MTN Test against South Africa at Newlands, crunching a 102-run opening stand to leave the tourists requiring exactly 200 to win with nine wickets standing on Tuesday's last day.

South Africa's spirited second innings, which finally ended at tea-time on Monday, left Australia needing to score 331 in 123 overs to retain the world Test championship. By the close they were 131 for one with Hayden ominously set.

If they get there, it will be the 10th highest winning score in the fourth innings in Test history and in spite of South Africa's dogged batting in their second innings and Shane Warne's 70-over marathon, the defining period of play may yet prove to be the 33 overs between tea and stumps on Monday.

South Africa needed to break through, Australia needed a start and it was the visiting team who galloped away with the session.

Langer was in murderous mood, hitting two boundaries off Makhaya Ntini in the first over of the innings to charge off with Hayden barely out of the blocks. Langer was the dominant partner in a stand that produced 102 in a ball over 22 overs and rocked the South Africans back on their heels.

Paul Adams, who had been so effective in the first innings, went for 36 in his first five overs as the left-handers hit him with the spin and while Ntini worried both batsmen on occasions, there seemed little the fielding side could do to stem the flow of runs.

The breakthrough came from an unexpected source. Dewald Pretorius had had a miserable first innings, taking none for 72 in 11 overs, but after an expensive opening burst he came back on from the other end to bowl Langer for 58 off a bottom edge.

Even so, Hayden went on to reach his 50 off the last ball of the day, and Australia could scarcely be better placed.

The first two sessions of the day consisted of a duel between Warne and the South African batsmen. He bowled 70 overs out of 162 for his six for 161. It was an epic performance, requiring stamina every bit as much as skill and it is fair to say that at no stage did the South Africans dominate him, as well as they batted.

The innings of day came from Neil McKenzie, cruelly run out on 99 by Damien Martyn's superb direct hit as he scampered for his 100th run. He had held the lower order together skillfully, but South Africa will have been left with the nagging feeling that his run out, and that of Andrew Hall for a duck, may have cost them 50 or so runs that they might dearly be wishing for on the last day.

It has been a fascinating Test match and although Australia now seem to have their noses in front, this South African side might not yet be ready to capitulate in the manner of other teams this summer. There has been a willingness to scrap with the Australians and while the opposition looks to have too many guns still loaded and ready to fire, an early breakthrough on the last day could expose a middle order that South Africans regard as Australia's soft centre.

Then again, the Australians always have Adam Gilchrist in reserve and South Africa have yet to discover a way of dismissing him on their home soil. On balance Australia have made fewer crucial mistakes over the first four days and if they keep their percentages up they will win this match. At the same time, the result is not yet a foregone conclusion and for South African supporters this may be the heartening news they have had all summer.