Determined not to repeat mistakes made in a fraught first innings, Australia batted carefully throughout a gruelling third day played on a grudging pitch here in Perth yesterday. Presented with an almost unchanging diet of fast-medium bowling, the home side concentrated on building an imposing lead.
Every batsman contributed something, but only Brad Hodge completed the task. After a slow start, the Victorian drove and pulled fluently when a persistent attack wilted as evening fell across Perth. His placements through cover were precise and sweetly timed and his innings of 91 not out, the highest in a brief Test career, has cemented his place in the side.
Michael Hussey offered doughty support as the pair added 126 crucial runs. As usual, the left-hander was quickly into his work, driving on both sides of the wicket and running well on his way to 54 not out. At once hungry and experienced, these newcomers have strengthened the Australian batting.
Until the final session the Australians had to fight for every run. Resuming their overnight partnership, Brett Lee and Justin Langer found Makhaya Ntini in vibrant form, while Shaun Pollock plugged away.
Lee's batting has improved enough to attract a stewards' inquiry and his play off the back foot was particularly productive. Langer drove and pulled boundaries in one over but otherwise advanced with caution. Accordingly, South Africa had a frustrating first hour.
Eventually Lee was beaten on the front foot by Charl Langeveldt, a reviving workhorse. Now came the day's most telling moment, as Ricky Ponting pounced on a tempter sent down by the former prison guard and pulled hard over square leg. Every eye turned towards the boundary.
Ponting must have been adding four notches to his modest tally but had reckoned without Jacques Rudolph. Far from resigning himself to an unavailing chase, Rudolph plucked the ball one-handed from the skies with the nonchalance of a monkey picking a nut.
Immediately it was clear that something was wrong. Far from celebrating, Rudolph looked dismayed. At once the explanation was obvious. The umpire Billy Doctrove had signalled a no-ball.
No one was surprised because Langeveldt had overstepped the line on several occasions. Naturally the visitors were distraught. In a trice, raised hopes had been dashed.
Then came the replay and the revelation. A mistake had been made. Langeveldt had landed an inch behind the line. Ponting's dismissal had been legitimate. Had he fallen at this early hour another tale might have been told.
Spared, Ponting batted with renewed commitment. Langer grafted away, adding 28 in the morning session. It was not exactly a laugh a minute but it was earnestly done. Just before lunch he strained a hamstring and was forced to send for a runner. Inconvenienced, he fell soon after the break, chopping on to his stumps.
Nothing much changed in the afternoon. Whereas 82 runs were added in the morning only 65 were collected in the second session, for the loss of Langer and Ponting, to a rare speculation outside off stump. The Tasmanian has matured and nowadays protects his wicket with the devotion Beefeaters bestow upon the crown jewels.
South Africa had managed to stay in the match but the chains began to break as the fifth-wicket pair punished tired bowlers. Graeme Smith took the second new ball but the scoring increased as Ntini lost his line. The hosts are well placed to win the match.