It's been seven weeks since South Africa's Test players flew out of Sydney with the series won and a decent rest ahead of them and three weeks since their ODI representatives left the country. Taking a break is always enjoyable, even if you spend it wrestling crocodiles like Dale Steyn, but the long hiatus from first-class cricket did take its toll on the South African bowlers on the first day in Johannesburg.
While Australia's players either took on New Zealand in the limited-overs series or went back to their states for some four-day action, South Africa's men had nothing but domestic Twenty20 on the agenda. None of Steyn, Morne Morkel or Makhaya Ntini have played a first-class match or even a 50-over game since leaving Australia and Steyn said it had taken a while to get used to the longer format again.
"Because we haven't been on the park since January the 7th, for some of the bowlers - with our patience not really being there - forced to string a good couple of overs together, it couldn't quite happen," Steyn said. "It looked like [Michael] Clarke and [Ricky] Ponting just got off the hook there a little bit. Once we got the ball in the right spot it just showed there is something out there for the bowlers."
Adding to the problems was the fact that Jacques Kallis left the field before lunch with a back injury and was unable to add to the four overs that he had already sent down. Kallis had scans and was cleared to resume bowling on the second day but Steyn said being a bowler down had made things even more difficult.
"We were a bowler short with Jacques being off the field," he said. "We were supposed to run in and take five-over spells, short spells, that was increased to at least six or seven or eight and that does play its toll when you haven't been on the park for quite a while. But this is what we have to deal with."
Despite the challenges, Steyn picked up three wickets and extracted significant swing, while Ntini and Morkel each chipped in with a breakthrough. Steyn had success in the first over of the match when he dropped in a short one that tempted the debutant opener Phillip Hughes into a strange, rash attempted slash over the slips that ended up being edged behind.
"If I could have bowled that ball a little bit closer to his head I would have enjoyed that but I wouldn't change it," Steyn said. "It was a bit wide, wasn't it? But look, it got a wicket. Who knows, maybe he was a little bit nervous and wanted to get off the mark. If I watch the replay it looked like he tried to hit it down anyway."
Steyn added the important wickets of Simon Katich, who was brilliantly taken in the gully by a diving Neil McKenzie, and Michael Clarke, who flashed outside off stump and edged an outswinger. Australia finished at 254 for 5 when bad light stopped play and Steyn said neither side could claim much of advantage.
"We'll take it as a dead even day and anything can happen tomorrow with the new ball just around the corner," he said. "If we strike early tomorrow morning then things are back in our hands."