A lamentable collapse by a shaky batting order has given the Australians a few headaches as their series with South African began on a firm pitch here in Perth yesterday. At lunch the hosts seemed in complete command with Ricky Ponting pulling and straight driving with aplomb. Not even the unexpected loss of their captain and Justin Langer in the space of a few balls afterwards caused concern. Nevertheless by stumps the hosts were in disarray.
Australia took their scones at 175 for 3 and appeared comfortable against an attack that had settled after a nervous start. Thereafter the batting was as fraught as one of Sir Alex Ferguson's press conferences. None of the middle-order men showed the technique needed to score efficiently against energetic bowling. Despite dropping several catches, two of them dollies, the beleaguered visitors took the last seven wickets for 78 runs. Graeme Smith did not allow his players to lose heart. Not even the loss of Jacques Kallis to an elbow injury was allowed to fester.
Makhaya Ntini led the way with five wickets. Unlike most cricketers he grew up tending sheep and dipping his feet in cow dung. Fortunately his athletic abilities were spotted by coaches eager to spread the game. For several years he was dismissed as a stooge. Now it is clear that he has pace, stamina, movement and a heart the size of Luton. Several hurtful catches were dropped off him yesterday and still the next ball was delivered without any hint of regret. Here is a man who looks only forwards.
Ntini took the first wicket in the second over as Matthew Hayden pulled indiscreetly. After some heart-stopping juggles, Jacques Rudolph held the catch at gulley. Australia's second-wicket pair appeared as hard pressed as Einstein pondering a sum. Shaun Pollock was unusually wayward and Charl Langeveldt was out of sorts. Andre Nel huffed and puffed but was secretly accurate. No spin was bowled.
Australia advanced to 111 for 1 whereupon the first rumble of doom was heard. Langer blotted his copybook by pulling loosely. Ponting worked across a straight delivery and was duly dispatched by the umpire Steve Bucknor. Had Brad Hodge not been spared behind the wicket as he cut at Ntini, the hosts might have been reeling. Instead, Hodge and Michael Hussey took the score to 180.
Not even the most optimistic South African could have foreseen the coming collapse. It was not a pretty sight. Late on another benighted pull, Hussey was superbly held one-handed at mid-on by a diving Langeveldt. Next Hodge pushed at a widish delivery and Adam Gilchrist was dropped at slip and then held as his lean trot continued. Ntini was involved in all these dismissals and near misses.
Andrew Symonds poked around before pulling on to his stumps and though the lower orders played merrily the end was nigh. Delighted by the turnaround, the visiting players patted backs and shook hands. Nor did their elation subside as Smith and A B de Villiers batted confidently in the final 30 minutes, collecting 38 runs and giving the hosts plenty to think about.