Phillip Hughes and Simon Katich registered centuries as contrasting as their cricketing resumes to provide Australia with the kind of start not seen since the halcyon days of Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer. But two late strikes from Paul Harris spared some South African blushes, reducing Australia to an authoritative, if not entirely overbearing, 303 for 4 at stumps on the first day.
The 20-year-old Hughes combined with the vastly experienced Simon Katich (108) for a 184-run partnership - the highest first-innings opening stand by an Australian duo since 2005 - and in so doing announced himself a legitimate international force. Just nine days removed from a fourth-ball duck in his maiden Test innings, the rookie left-hander produced a powerful, nerveless 115 highlighted by a pair of towering sixes that guided him through the 90s and into Australian cricketing folklore. Not since Doug Walters in 1965-66 has an Australian batsman notched a Test ton at such a tender age.
The Australians could not have hoped for a brighter start from their fledgling opening combination, but their bid to close out the series in Durban was undermined by the finger-spin of Harris. His dismissals of Ricky Ponting (9) driving on the up and Michael Clarke (3) playing down the wrong line tempered Australia's once-rampant run-rate and drew the South Africans back into the contest. Harris' effectiveness on day one should unnerve Australia's selectors, who again overlooked the specialist spin of Bryce McGain in preference of two allrounders in Andrew McDonald and Marcus North.
But those concerns are for another day. For Friday will be remembered as one of triumph for the Australians who, in just two Tests, have gone far to dispursing the vultures of doubt that circled after Matthew Hayden's retirement in January.
Targetted by South Africa coach Mickey Arthur in the press during the week over his supposed short-comings against short bowling, Hughes seldom looked troubled during his 151 ball stay at the crease, taking full advantage of a low Kingsmead pitch and inoffensive South African bowling. At one stage, Hughes struck four consecutive boundaries against Morne Morkel which, combined with a no-ball and four byes from an errant bouncer, left the out-of-sorts paceman with the unflattering return of 21 runs from four legal deliveries. Whatever pressure Dale Steyn and Makhaya Ntini built in their opening spell had vanished. The Australians were away.
Curiously, after all the talk of short-pitched bowling, the South Africans maintained a full, straight line to Hughes. He duly responded by driving strongly down the ground, and clipping crisply off his pads. Hughes raised his second consecutive Test half-century with an extravagant square drive off Jacques Kallis that raced to the boundary, then duplicated the stroke (and the four) the very next ball. But the highlight of the innings was undoubtedly the consecutive sixes swatted over the head of Harris to raise his first Test ton - a feat he celebrated with an exuberant leap in the air and pump of the fist.
Hughes was granted a life by Kallis at a wide first slip, but the allrounder had his revenge one run later when he coaxed Hughes into a slash outside his off stump that was snaffled by a diving Neil McKenzie in the gully. Katich also received a reprieve when turfed by Hashim Amla at midwicket off the bowling of Steyn, and the senior opener appeared intent on punishing the South Africans for their error in advancing to an unbeaten 84 at the tea break.
Katich's watchful approach was rewarded in the final session with a seventh Test century, and fifth since his recall to the Test side last May. The revitalised left-hander has scored 1,250 runs in those 14 Tests - better than half his career tally - at the robust average of 54.34 and, with Hughes, provided the team with hope that a new, dominant opening partnership has been uncovered.
The South Africans will be bitterly disappointed with the opening two sessions. Steyn and Ntini threatened sparingly - the former swinging into the pads of the left-handers, the latter angling across - and Morkel proved underwhelming in the extreme. Arthur's mantra of winning the first hour of a Test match was brutally dispatched by the swinging blade of Hughes, and the pair of dropped catches in the second session will do little to improve the coach's mood.
The period leading up to tea was notable for the first Hot Spot referral - the umpires found in favour of the batsman - and the demise of Ponting. Clarke's fall shortly after temporarily raised South African hopes of a late day fightback, but North and Michael Hussey weathered a testing period from Steyn and Ntini with the second new ball to carry their bats through to stumps.