At Cape Town, March 16, 17, 18, 2006. Australia won by seven wickets. Toss: South Africa. Test debut: S. R. Clark.
Players play and groundsmen prepare pitches. Or that's the theory. But when the South African team arrived in Cape Town before the First Test, they decided to get involved with pitch preparation. Senior players persuaded team management to encourage Christo Erasmus, the head groundsman, to give the pitch an unscheduled watering two days before the match started - despite his insistence that it was a good batting surface that would not especially take spin.
The South Africans had just one man in mind, and to their eyes the bare patches looked terrifying and the small cracks cavernous. After dominating South Africa's batsmen for more than a decade, Shane Warne (and his reputation) had once again influenced the outcome of the match - before he had even had a net.
Australia may not have had Glenn McGrath, but they did have a ready-made replacement in Stuart Clark, a modest, affable seamer from New South Wales making his Test debut, aged 30. Like McGrath, he had control, stamina and the ability to land the ball consistently on the seam. He grabbed three wickets in his opening spell and returned to complete a five-wicket haul as popular with his team-mates as it was welldeserved.
A part-time law student with a placid temperament is not the normal profile for a fast bowler, but it works for Clark. He relished the unexpected conditions while Warne looked out of sorts and barely featured in South Africa's decline to 205 all out. In reply, Hayden and Ponting added 154 superb runs for the second wicket, a stand that went a long way towards winning the Test. Hayden was unperturbed by the long periods of defensive grind needed to survive on a pitch that never lost its zip and movement, while Ponting simply dominated the South African attack as normal. The last time these teams met in a Test, at Sydney, he hit twin hundreds, plus there was the little matter of 164 in the Wanderers one-dayer. Eventually, Ponting drove straight to the "trap" man at short extra cover, and Hayden's patience ran out soon afterwards when he miscued a hook to deep square leg. But a first innings lead of 103 looked telling, and so it proved.
Clark, his control as constant as before, was again the pick of the bowlers and, while he narrowly missed out on ten wickets in the match, his nine for 89 was the thirdbest return on debut for Australia. Warne also came back to life in the second innings and claimed the key wickets of Smith and Rudolph. Australia had the distinctly gettable target of 95.
Ntini, bowling with his usual enthusiasm and sense of purpose, removed the top three, but not before a controversial episode left the South Africans seething. Hayden punched Boje powerfully to midwicket, where Hall dived forward to take what seemed a good catch. When the batsman refused to walk, umpires Doctrove and Aleem Dar looked nonplussed, and conferred for several minutes before shrugging their shoulders and giving Hayden the benefit of the doubt. Had the incident occurred when the game was still live, the fall-out could have been nasty. But by then the Australians had played all the better cricket, and they ran out deserved winners inside three days.
Man of the Match: S. R. Clark. Attendance: 28,033.