Australia have dominated this rivalry in recent times, but this has been a season of change with South Africa triumphant Down Under for the first time in their history. Their endeavour to replicate that feat on home soil started brightly, with three wickets in swing-friendly conditions after Australia had decided to bat, but a stirring riposte from Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke set the stage for more bold counter-attacking strokeplay in the final session. When bad light halted play with 22 overs still to be bowled in the day, Marcus North, one of the three debutants in baggy green, and Brad Haddin had added 72 runs in rapid time, with a frustrated Graeme Smith forced to bowl his slow bowlers to try and speed up a dismal over-rate.
The key moment of the day's play had also involved Smith, and it came just before lunch with Australia stuttering at 67 for 3. Ponting, then on 40, edged Steyn, and there was embarrassed silence in the slip cordon as the simple chance was put down. The torrid struggle of the first session soon gave way to free-stroking batsmanship as South Africa lost some intensity after lunch. Clarke led the way with a glorious straight drive and a clip to square leg off Steyn, and a succession of drives through cover and point accelerated the run-rate in the first hour after the interval.
Steyn was again the pick of the bowlers with three wickets, but the loss of Jacques Kallis to a mild back strain significantly reduced Smith's bowling options. With Clarke so positive, Ponting too opened up. He flicked Makhaya Ntini through midwicket to reach his half-century from 87 balls, and then pummelled a pull to bring up the hundred of the innings. It was a rousing counterattack and the crowd was eerily quiet when he played a peach of a square-drive off Morne Morkel. Soon after, South Africa squandered one of their two referrals, with replays showing that a Morkel delivery had brushed Ponting's trouser pocket rather than his bat.
The strokeplay continued after drinks, with Clarke square-driving Morkel and lofting Paul Harris back over his head. He reached his 50 from just 61 balls, but the momentum was halted by a bizarre error of judgement from Ponting. With Ntini delivering from well wide of the crease as usual, he shouldered arms to a ball that darted back in to brush the pad before thudding into the stumps.
North was greeted with a rapid Steyn bouncer but a skidding pull off Morkel suggested that he wouldn't easily be bullied. But the dressing room's sense of well-being was disturbed in the penultimate over before tea, as Clarke chased a fairly wide delivery from Steyn. Mark Boucher wasn't as generous as Smith had been earlier.
But if South Africa scented a quick Highveld kill at tea, those notions were swiftly disabused. North got away with a streaky stroke or two, but he also launched into a couple of imperious drives though cover as the bowlers started to lose accuracy. Haddin was ruthless too, swatting away a couple of pulls and then easing one majestically through the covers. As a Gorky-Park darkness prompted the umpires to reach for their light meters, Paul Harris and JP Duminy were bowling in tandem, and the momentum had shifted inexorably.
The morning had been all about South Africa seizing the early initiative in a series they need to win to confirm their status as the best team in the world. That quest couldn't have had a better start. Phillip Hughes is 20 and the youngest Australian debutant since Craig McDermott, but the Bullring can be an intimidating venue even for old hands. He lasted just four balls before an uncoordinated attempt to bunt Steyn over the slip cordon ended up in Boucher's gloves.
With Matthew Hayden having walked into the Queensland sunset, Simon Katich needed to set the tone at the start of the innings. But with Steyn and Ntini cramping him for room, scoring opportunities were markedly few. He had crawled to 3 from 25 balls when he had a dart at one that Steyn had angled across him. When Neil McKenzie dived to his right from gully, taking the ball horizontal to the ground, there were gasps from team-mates and fans alike. Delirium quickly followed.
It could have been much worse but for Ponting's inherently positive approach. An imperious pull off Ntini got him going, and he laced a sweet cover-drive too as the bowlers continued to probe away. Morkel was superbly clipped through midwicket, but once he started to angle the ball in from short of a length, Ponting was tested as he had been by Ishant Sharma last year. One delivery struck him below the elbow, and his grimace became a near-growl when Morkel slanted a beautiful delivery across Michael Hussey's bat. Kallis made no mistake at second slip.
South Africa were unchanged from the side that lost the Sydney Test early in the new year, while Ben Hilfenhaus joined North and Hughes in making a debut. Andrew McDonald also played, and the decision not to include a specialist spinner, which Mickey Arthur described as "high-risk", was looking rather dubious with Harris getting some turn as soon as he came on to bowl. Ultimately though, it was pace that did all the damage, until Australia rediscovered some of the steel that had deserted them on home turf.