Graeme Smith was left a disappointed man as South Africa squandered the advantage of batting first on a pitch both captains expect to get worse sooner rather than later. They were bowled out for 226 in two-and-a-half sessions and New Zealand finished the opening day of the first Test at The Wanderers on 41 for 2.
The stars of the day were Chris Martin and Shane Bond, New Zealand's opening bowlers. They maintained a nagging line and length throughout, probing for weaknesses and finding them often. The pitch, which Smith expressed concerns about after winning the toss, stayed sound throughout, albeit after being slightly two-paced in the morning. Most of the problems were posed by the bowlers.
Smith fell before most of the desultory crowd had found their places among the vast banks of empty seats, playing half-heartedly back and deflecting the ball into his leg stump. When Hashim Amla, who looked ill at ease throughout, gloved a snorter from Bond to the wicketkeeper, South Africa were 20 for 2 and in a right muddle.
Herschelle Gibbs and Jacques Kallis then stemmed the slide in an attritional morning session, one that purists would describe with misty eyes as good old-fashioned Test cricket where every run was hard earned. So suspicious of ball and pitch did the batsmen appear that at one stage 30 minutes passed without a run. Gibbs was about as unGibbish as he could have been, taking half an hour to get off the mark; Kallis, after a nervous start, started to look ominously set.
New Zealand's advantage appeared to have been blown in the last three overs before lunch, the monolithic Kallis twice being dropped off routine chances by Michael Papps (slip) and Iain O'Brien (long leg). But uncharacteristically he didn't make the New Zealanders pay, falling to the first ball of the afternoon when he nicked a strangely loose drive to Brendon McCullum.
Gibbs, stirred from his slumber by the break, then opened up and found an ally in AB de Villiers after Ashwell Prince had hardly stayed long enough to register. As he grew in confidence he unleashed some sumptuous drives and cuts, but he then lost his concentration and top-edged the excellent Martin to Stephen Fleming at slip. His 63 was crucial but the timing of his lapse could not have been worse.
The innings again lost its direction. de Villiers was suddenly all at sea, surviving two chances, before a slashing drive was well held by Jacob Oram in the gully, and from then on its was a case of how long Mark Boucher could milk the strike and shepherd the tail. Andre Nel slashed an got lucky a few times before edging Bond to McCullum, Paul Harris was dropped three times off one ball by Fleming at third slip before perishing the next delivery, and in the end Boucher slogged out to Daniel Vettori. On his first day as a Test captain most things went right for Vettori, and he deserved his 2 for 26 from 18 miserly overs.
New Zealand faced a tricky 45 minutes before the close, but the overcast conditions had given way to bright sunshine and it was about as good for batting as it had been all day. Makhaya Ntini, Dale Steyn and Nel roared in and gave the batsmen a good working over. The trio huffed and puffed and removed both openers to finally give Smith cause for the smallest of smiles. Papps steered Ntini to second slip and then in the penultimate over Craig Cumming was trapped on the crease by Nel.
Fleming, freed from the burden of captaincy for the first time in nine years, came in as the shadows lengthened and played a breezy cameo. He twice cut Ntini over the slips, flicked Nel over backward square leg for six, and played and missed enough to leave even Nel speechless. The situation calls for something more substantial tomorrow, but, regardless, it was still New Zealand's day.