Cricket: Elliott's first instalment

First Test: Rookie batsman punishes below-par South Africa as Australia find their balance for the Ashes series
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Matthew Elliott cast aside any lingering doubts over his right to a permanent place in Australia's formidable batting line-up with an aggressive 85 yesterday to leave his side with the advantage in the First Test against South Africa at The Wanderers.

The left-hander, who was playing yesterday in only his fifth Test innings after a knee injury three months ago threatened to halt his career almost before it had begun, bludgeoned 12 fours and one savagely hooked six off Allan Donald in his innings. It left Australia well-placed at 191 for four when play was abandoned yesterday as first bad light and then rain wiped out all but the first eight balls of the final session.

With Steve Waugh, the world No 1, and Greg Blewett still at the wicket, the Australians will be understandably confident of overhauling South Africa's first-innings total of 302. They know they still have Michael Bevan and Ian Healy to come to build on the platform constructed almost single-handedly by Elliott.

The 25-year-old Victorian produced an impressive array of shots to give Mark Taylor's side the opportunity to take the initiative in the three- Test series. And yet Elliott was fortunate to make the tour. A seven- week lay-off following knee surgery after a mid-wicket collision with Mark Waugh during the Second Test against the West Indies at Sydney in early December seemed to have opened the door for the out-of-favour opener Michael Slater.

Australia's selectors, to their credit and Slater's cost, stuck with Elliott, and the Victorian has repaid that faith by filling the problematic No 3 slot vacated by David Boon a little over a year ago. Blewett, Ricky Ponting and Justin Langer had been tried in the position but only Elliott has looked a seemingly long-term solution.

Elliott, my Australian cricket writing colleagues assure me, has been likened to another famous Victorian, Bill Lawry. The comparison seems unlikely. A chip off "The Phantom", Elliott certainly is not.

Elliott plays with equal assurance on both the off and leg-side. Five boundaries in two overs from Lance Klusener just after lunch were testimony enough as a pull, a hook, an on-drive and two sumptuous cover drives flew to the fence. Elliott did survive a huge lbw shout from Paul Adams when on 44 - only the suspicion of an outside edge may have saved him - but apart from that he was rarely troubled by the bowlers.

A maiden Test hundred seemed certain until Elliott misjudged the angle of a short, wide delivery from Donald to top-edge a simple catch to Adams at mid-on. The dismissal was unexpected but by then Elliott had done enough to confirm his potential.

Earlier the wretchedly out-of-touch Taylor had failed to reach 50 for the 16th consecutive Test innings. The captain's last substantial contribution came when he made 96 against Sri Lanka 15 months ago. But two early fours yesterday, struck crisply off Donald, appeared to have settled the nerves. In racing parlance, Taylor is bang out of form, and he confirmed his miserable trot by dragging an indifferent round-the-wicket delivery from Shaun Pollock on to his stumps when on 16.

Matthew Hayden, Taylor's opening partner, then applied himself to the anchor role, batting through 157 minutes for a patient 40. Hayden, a surfer and born-again Christian, scarcely played a false shot until he nicked Pollock to first slip. Daryll Cullinan took the chance well, low down to his right, to leave Australia at 128 for two.

That brought in Mark Waugh, who looked at his typically relaxed best until bottom-edging a mistimed hook off Donald to the wicketkeeper Dave Richardson. Donald had looked strangely below par in his early spells after five highly productive Tests against India earlier in the season.

But after nailing Waugh with the final ball of his 13th over, Donald charged in to get rid of Elliott two balls later and finish the day with the slightly flattering figures of two for 57. That was hardly as much as Donald or, indeed, Elliott deserved.

(South Africa won toss)

SOUTH AFRICA - First Innings 302 (W J Cronje 76, D J Richardson 72no; G D McGrath 4-77)

AUSTRALIA - First Innings

*M A Taylor b Pollock 16

M L Hayden c Cullinan b Pollock 40

M T G Elliott c Adams b Donald 85

M E Waugh c Richardson b Donald 26

S R Waugh not out 14

G S Blewett not out 3

Extras (lb2 w3 nb2) 7

Total (for 4) 191

Fall: 1-33 2-128 3-169 4-174.

To bat: M G Bevan, I A Healy, S K Warne, J N Gillespie, G D McGrath.

Bowling (to date): Donald 15-3-57-2 (w2); Pollock 12-0-43-2 (nb2); Klusener 12.2-4-52-0; Kallis 5-1-11-0 (w1); Adams 15-2-26-0.

Umpires: C J Mitchley (SA) and S Venkataraghavan (Ind).