Two wickets in quick succession at three critical periods of the opening day of the second Test here yesterday undermined stout West Indies resistance to the anticipated South African response to their shock defeat in the first in Port Elizabeth last week.
A total of 240 for eight at the close was obviously not the target set after Chris Gayle won the toss and chose to bat on a pitch with a reputation as a batsman's friend but it did not represent the whole story.
Its value was appreciably diminished by an outfield so heavily grassed as to be unsuitable for the game at this level, especially on a day when the celebrated, retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu rededicated the Newlands ground before play to mark the 200th anniversary of the first cricket match played there.
Shots that headed for certain boundaries repeatedly pulled up short like a speeding motorist braking at a red light. While the opening day of the first Test produced 43 fours from 84 overs, there were only 21 off 89 overs yesterday.
A fungus reportedly attacked the grass last year and the ground clearly hasn't recovered, as is evident from the ugly bare patches that cover wide areas. South Africa will also have to cope with such a handicap but it did deny a crowd of 11,600 full value for their money.
The contest was intense rather than exciting throughout, the balance shifting one way and then the next until South Africa secured the advantage with six wickets for 57 in the last hour and 50 minutes. The fluctuations began with the fall of Runako Morton and Chris Gayle within six runs and 4.2 overs of each other just before lunch that ended a burgeoning second- wicket partnership of 59.
It continued through a third-wicket stand of 106 between Shivnarine Chanderpaul, who compiled his eighth half-century in nine Test innings to be 64 at stumps, and the born-again batsman, Marlon Samuels, who followed his 94 and 40 in Port Elizabeth with another disciplined performance for 51.
Just when they appeared to have gained the upper hand, the dismissals of Samuels and the struggling Dwayne Bravo in successive overs from Makaya Ntini checked their advance.
The most critical strikes were made by Dale Steyn with the second new ball. He dispatched Denesh Ramdin, after a promising 21, and the returning Rawl Lewis with successive deliveries in the third over and completed a satisfying day for the home team with a lobbed catch off his bowling that accounted for Jerome Taylor.
Daren Ganga, Gayle, Samuels and Bravo were all caught from edged strokes, evidence of movement off the seam on a surface not quite as benign as usual.
Once the West Indies fast bowlers find the right lines and lengths, and given the condition of the outfield, runs should be no easier for South Africa's batsmen to come by. It is unlikely that any of them will waste their hand as Morton did. Entering in the fifth over after Steyn found Ganga's searching edge, Morton was offering comforting support to his captain. He accumulated 23 runs in just over an hour, mainly with his trademark drive down the ground, and watched Gayle hoist Ntini for a straight six and pull him over square-leg for another. Then, for no good reason, he drove Jacques Kallis' fifth ball into Ntini's lap at mid-off. It was the stroke of a coach offering pre-play catching practice.
There were alarms over Gayle's hamstring when he hobbled through his 24th run and, although he had physiotherapy during the drinks break, he did not seem unduly bothered as he continued. He was four short of 50 when Andre Nel made one leave him on pitching and Neil McKenzie celebrated his first Test in four years with a sharp catch to his right at gully.
Chanderpaul, as a matter of course, and Samuels set things right again with their carefully constructed stand that occupied three hours, five minutes and 40.2 overs. Chanderpaul was laid flat on his backside four times by bouncers, an indignity that would have brought the mandatory eight count in boxing. But the dogged left-hander was unfazed and, with Samuels once more displaying the "stickability" demanded by Clive Lloyd, they batted through the second session with few alarms.
They were so careful, the first hour after lunch brought only 27 runs off 14 overs until they changed a gear to add 50 off the remaining hour to tea.
It took a new spell from Ntini to shift the balance once more. He found the outside edge of tentative bats to account for Samuels and Bravo in his first and second over back, intensifying the pressure on Chanderpaul to shepherd the remainder of the innings.
First Samuels fell to a keeper's catch for 51, his stay of three hours, 24 minutes and 144 balls confirming the changed attitude evident in his equally diligent 94 and 40 in the first Test.
Bravo, clearly and woefully short of confidence at the moment, diverted his fourth ball low to Kallis at second slip without scoring.
Steyn then landed the three final blows over the last half-hour. Once again basically unthreatening until then, he was energised by the hard, shiny cherry. Delivering a fast, full length, he ended Denesh Ramdin's promising stay of just over an hour for 21 with an lbw decision and then conjured up an outswinging yorker that was too much for Rawl Lewis.
Chosen instead of his Windward Islands' colleague, Darren Sammy, presumably after a look at a straw-coloured pitch, it was an embarrassing return for the legspinning allrounder, appearing in his fifth Test in his fifth series.
Steyn secured his fourth victim six minutes to the end, Taylor popping back a return catch.
Through it all, Chanderpaul remained unflappable but, with only Daren Powell and Fidel Edwards to come, even he is unlikely to build the total by much. In what is already shaping as a low scoring contest, anything would be welcome.