Australia 239-8 South Africa: Ponting stands out before Nel takes charge

Ordinarily a century scored by an Australian batsmen on the opening day of a Boxing Day Test takes the home team into a dominant position. Yesterday Ricky Ponting reached three figures yet the visitors stayed in the match. By stumps the South Africans could be satisfied with their position, which did not seem likely as their hosts marched to 154 for 1.

Another team might have fallen back as the home second-wicket pair rode rough-shod after Phil Jaques had been held at short leg. Graeme Smith and his players are not so easily discouraged. South Africa's reluctance to seize the moment can be frustrating. Not having a third slip for Ponting as he settled was a costly blunder. Yet Smith has become expert at turning Australia's aggression back on itself.

Smith's strategies reflect the temperament of his side. Several close leg-before decisions were rightly rejected by the umpire Asad Rauf and still the visitors kept coming. When a catch was dropped, an error already committed nine times in six days, spirits remained high. First ball after morning drinks, Jacques Kallis had a sitter dropped at mid-wicket and promptly walked back to his mark. Ponting (17) had been reprieved. Later the culprit made amends with a surge that turned the match on its head.

In many respects Andre Nel, the aformentioned butterfingers, epitomises his side. From a distance he does not look much more than a long streak of noise. Much the same was said about Merv Hughes. But Nel raises spirits, tries from dawn till dusk, changes moods and takes wickets.

Yet the visitors needed a little help from their opponents. Australia's batting lacked conviction. Brad Hodge played away from his body, Andrew Symonds was neither forward or back and Adam Gilchrist sliced to gully.

Ponting deserved better. He did extremely well to score his sixth hundred of the year, along the way reaching 1,500 runs in a calendar year for a second time. Viv Richards passed 1,500 in 1976. No one else has managed it. At first he was forced to concentrate on survival. Anticipating a hot week, the groundsman had watered the pitch and the start was fussily delayed by 30 minutes. Nor did the surface encourage adventure. The stadium is being prepared for the Commonwealth Games in March and a drop-in pitch has been used. Not that a crowd of 71,000 was complaining.

Ponting did bat well. After taking his bearings, he played a wide range of strokes, including uppercuts, off-drives and straight drives executed with precision and power. A mistimed back-foot shot to point undid him on 117.

Matthew Hayden, after his aberration in Perth, took his time until a tempter lured him into edging low to slip, thereby rewarding Shaun Pollock for another unstinting effort. Soon Pollock struck again, Nel replaced him and South Africa did not look back.

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