Ricky Ponting stepped up in his bid to level the series with a century, but South Africa maintained the momentum that was gained over the past week by limiting the impact of the captain's accomplices. While Australia were in a festive mood when Ponting was on the way to a classy 101, they ended the day at the doubt of 6 for 280 after another tight contest.
Like South Africa did at the WACA, where they earned a 1-0 lead in the three-match series, the visitors hit regularly and effectively whenever Australia seemed to be racing away. Dale Steyn chipped in with two important wickets after lunch to drop Australia to 3 for 143 and when the third session began without Ponting it was up to the batsmen to scrap towards stumps on a slow surface.
Michael Clarke managed it and Brad Haddin didn't during a subdued performance from the hosts after they had promised more following the shock of the opening match. Clarke was forced to battle throughout his 36 from 157 balls, wanting to hold the innings together, and Haddin (40) breezed through late in the day, striking Steyn for back-to-back boundaries in his first over with the new ball. Despite the 54-run stand for the sixth wicket, it was South Africa who ended in the more attractive position after Makhaya Ntini watched Haddin nick to first slip.
Ponting aimed to lead his side out of a difficult year on a high before his surprise exit to the ball before tea. He was on the verge on being unstoppable until pushing at the left-arm spinner Paul Harris and popping a catch to Hashim Amla at short-leg, allowing South Africa to forget about a moment that threatened to become crucial.
In the over before lunch Steyn forced an edge from Ponting that went to second slip, where Neil McKenzie dropped it. Ponting was on 24 and fighting to find fluency, but the break came at the ideal time for Australia's captain. Coming back after the interval he struck his first ball, from Ntini, straight down the ground for four and over the next two hours dominated South Africa by adding 74.
The innings briefly covered the damage of losing Simon Katich and Michael Hussey, with the score slipping quickly from 1 for 128. Runs came from Ponting behind square-leg, in the V, through point and cover, off the front foot and back. This was a man who was again a fabulous example, a figure of batting wonder rather than the grumpy captain of the final day in Perth.
South Africa were sensible to focus at the other end, even though Ponting offered occasional plays and misses. He square drove a four to bring up his half-century in 80 deliveries and followed next ball with a repeat off Ntini. The third boundary in a row came from a crisp straight drive and he continued in committed fashion until Harris intervened.
It was his 37th Test century, his fourth at the MCG, and he took time to wave to friends, family and fans. There were ten boundaries and a six, which arrived when he flicked Morne Morkel to fine-leg, but he left unfulfilled.
While Ponting was purring after lunch, Katich returned quietly and departed when he tried to drive Steyn on the up and inside-edged on to middle stump. His 54 was important in lifting Australia following the early loss of Matthew Hayden, who also fell to a bowler operating around the wicket. Hussey was another to fail against that angle, thinking about playing Steyn but pulling out too late and being caught behind by Mark Boucher. After 0 and 8 in Perth, Hussey was gone with his third zero since returning from India.
Steyn started poorly, spraying the ball outside off stump, but returned with purpose in the middle session when he had 2 for 22 in a seven-over spell. Steyn and Ntini ended the day with a new ball and Ntini (2 for 71) dismantled the Clarke-Haddin stand. Harris was also thoughtful and containing, finishing with 1 for 33 off 16, while Jacques Kallis was employed for 15 overs in a similar run-limiting role.
Morkel, whose first two overs went for 18, returned after tea to pick up Andrew Symonds when he slashed a cut shot and it was intercepted by an alert Kallis at second slip. Symonds exited with 27, a cameo which included some strong and risky boundaries, and Australia were in more discomfort at 5 for 223.
It was not a good day for Symonds and his great friend Hayden. Hayden could not find the innings that would extend his career and was dismissed on 8 trying to drive a wide ball from Ntini, which sliced to JP Duminy at backward point. Unless he can make a hefty contribution later in the game he may be farewelling his team-mates next week in Sydney.