There are three days of this First Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground yet to unravel, but Hansie Cronje's men have muddled themselves into a pickle so sour they cannot reasonably contemplate victory, even if they are true believers in cricket's glorious uncertainty.
How appropriate it was that South Africa ended the first day of the Test just as they had begun it - spilling a simple catch. In the very first over on Boxing Day, Jacques Kallis at third slip grassed Matthew Elliott's waist-high offering from an Allan Donald slanter, the opener's bat probing for the ball, the slipper grabbing for it. Nerves all round. Then, in the last over of the day, Gary Kirsten at point let escape a sliced, slightly curving, uppish square cut from Steve Waugh.
Again the bowler was Donald, who in between times had been mainly responsible for Australia's uncertain progress - fewer than 50 at lunch, under 100 by tea and four good men gone. Yet, by stumps Waugh and Ponting had exposed Cronje's strangely indecisive tactics and taken the total past 200.
On any assessment of the pitch's likely character development, the Test is now already out of South Africa's reach, the message delivered via the sign in a crowd eager to join the debate about Shane Warne's heavier frame: "It ain't over 'til the fat man spins."
Well, he's spinning - and big, as you would expect. When Australia began defending 309 after lunch on the second day, the Australian captain, Mark Taylor, had his match-winner on after only 14 overs. Conditions are favourable: bowlers' footmarks have been obvious since the first hour of play and, late in Australia's first innings, Shaun Pollock jagged a big leg-cutter to claim a caught and bowled, then Mike Kasprowicz made one snake half the pitch-width.
In the seconds after he dropped the Waugh catch, Kirsten was on his knees searching for the ball which had spun behind him, a forlorn sight which perfectly depicted the Proteas' day of missed opportunity.
They would have craved a win at Melbourne, for the next two Tests are at Sydney and Adelaide, pitches Warne regards even more favourably than his beloved home MCG. Yet, here he was looking so dangerous that Kirsten ran out Daryll Cullinan trying to deliver him from Warne's spell. The direct-hit fielder? Ponting.
Those who recall Ponting's 127 at Headingley in the Ashes series can be assured this was a finer innings although, as at Headingley, it was crafted in adversity - then Australia were 50 for 4, here 77 for 4. Two memorable moments reinforced the naturalness of the Australian way. He moved into the 90s with a drive to the extra cover boundary off Symcox, the off-spinner, advancing down the pitch with two quick, light steps and executing with an arc of the bat as graceful and as powerful as Greg Norman's golf swing. Late on the first evening when Pollock dropped not too short with the second new ball, he pivoted and pulled it all the way to the longest boundary, the shot of an eagle-eye; this was directly followed by a stately back-foot drive to the cover point boundary. Many watching immediately thought of Norman O'Neill.
This Boxing Day Test had been eagerly awaited: the first-day crowd of 73,000 was the highest since the prospect of Lillee and Thomson spilling West Indian blood had drawn about 80,000 22 years before.
At last, some good cheer for an Australian Cricket Board who had seen their summer hijacked by threats of a player strike, by a second-rate New Zealand team and by an unimpressive Australian performance in the one-day World Series, albeit from a squad the selectors insist is not so much the best, but a well- intentioned experiment with an eye towards the 1999 World Cup.
It's a quirk of cricketing fate that the onset of lunch has been significant in the Test to date: on day one, third-last ball before the break, Mark Waugh airily waved the bat at a slow flier outside off, just as he might if opening in a World Series match, where his form has been better than anyone's. This unexpected carelessness on nought prompted the question of whether it was a sign of "new cricket", of Test batsmen neglecting common sense? After all, what has happened to the Test form of that other one-day champion, Brian Lara?
Then, Ponting's innings ended on the second-last ball before the break on day two, off stump scuttled when he let one go from Pat Symcox that had pitched a good foot wide. More delight for Warne; will he finish the Test just before lunch on day five?
Midway through the final session of day two Ian Healy collected a sharply angled inside edge from Kallis off Glenn McGrath, a truly remarkable catch because he was heading to the off, then reflex-dived back to catch it outside leg.
As Kirsten, not out at stumps, watched it unfold from the non-striker's end he must have cursed his own fumbling hands; and, such has been the inept performance of his fellow batsmen, it is reasonable to assume South Africa's fate might now rest on the width of Kirsten's bat.
Australia won toss
AUSTRALIA - First Innings
M T Elliott c Richardson b Klusener 6
*M A Taylor c Kirsten b McMillan 20
G S Blewett st Richardson b Symcox 26
M E Waugh c Richardson b Donald 0
S R Waugh c Cullinan b Donald 96
R T Ponting b Symcox 105
I A Healy b Donald 16
P R Reiffel b Symcox 27
S K Warne c and b Pollock 1
M S Kasprowicz c Bacher b Symcox 0
G D McGrath not out 0
Extras (nb5, lb6, b1) 12
Total (121.2 overs) 309
Fall: 1-18, 2-42, 3-44, 4-77, 5-222, 6-250, 7-302, 8-309, 9-309
Bowling: Donald 29-6-74-3 (nb2), Pollock 28-6-76-1 (nb1), Klusener 19- 3-48-1 (nb2), McMillan 10-3-19-1, Symcox 27.2-4-69-4, Kallis 4-2-5-0, Cronje 4-2-11-0.
SOUTH AFRICA - First Innings
A M Bacher c Healy b Kasprowicz 3
G Kirsten not out 61
J H Kallis c Healy b McGrath 15
D J Cullinan run out 5
*W J Cronje c Blewett b Warne 0
B M McMillan not out 6
Extras (nb4) 4
Total (for 4, 56 overs) 94
Fall: 1-28, 2-62, 3-75, 4-76.
To bat: S M Pollock, L Klusener, D J Richardson, P L Symcox, A A Donald.
Bowling: McGrath 12-6-13-1, Reiffel 6-2-20-0 (nb2), Kasprowicz 10-3-21- 1 (nb1), Warne 22-7-37-1 (nb1), M Waugh 6-4-3-0.
Umpires: S Bucknor (WI) and S Randell (Aus).Reuse content