South Africa are on course for a scarcely believable victory over Australia in the first Test after the tourists threw away a 188-run lead yesterday in Cape Town to be bowled out for an astonishing 47 in their second innings.
Australia's dramatic and near record-breaking collapse, less than two hours after they had skittled South Africa for 96, left the Proteas needing 155 more runs with nine wickets in hand at stumps after a chaotic second day.
Captain Graeme Smith (36 not out) and Hashim Amla (29 not out) guided South Africa to 81 for 1 at the close of a day in which 23 wickets fell – the most in a day of Test cricket in more than 100 years. It was also only the second time in Tests where there has been play in all four innings on the same day.
Michael Clarke's majestic 151 that guided Australia to 284 in their first innings earlier in the morning was forgotten as his team slumped spectacularly to their lowest score in 109 years in a stunning turnaround in the match.
Australia even needed a desperate last-wicket partnership of 26 runs to avoid the record for the all-time lowest team total. Nathan Lyon top-scored with 14 and Peter Siddle was next with 12 not out to rescue Australia from 21 for 9 – just five runs off the worst score in Test history, when New Zealand were bowled out for 26 by England in 1955.
The total was still Australia's fourth worst in history, only 11 runs more than their record low of 36, set against England in 1902. Debutant seam bowler Vernon Philander took 5 for 15 and Morne Morkel 3 for 9 to blast out the tourists and restrict their lead to 235.
A shocked Clarke described his side's batting as "disgraceful". "The top seven need to take full responsibility, that certainly was not good enough," he added. "I myself as the leader, especially coming off a hundred, am to blame. Our shot selection was horrible, you have to give South Africa credit for bowling very well, but it was unacceptable."
In the morning session South Africa appeared to have recovered from the loss of opener Jacques Rudolph to go to lunch on 49 for 1. But Shane Watson unleashed a devastating five-over spell, taking 5 for 17 as Australia ripped South Africa out for just 96 for a commanding first-innings lead of 188.
All-rounder Watson fell third ball of Australia's second innings, and Ricky Ponting and Phil Hughes were also out as 12 wickets in total went down in less than 19 overs between lunch and tea.
Australia's post-tea collapse was even more dramatic, sudden and unexpected. Mike Hussey, Clarke and Brad Haddin fell within five runs of the restart and Australia were reeling at 21 for 9 in the 12th over under relentless pressure from Philander, Morkel and Dale Steyn (2 for 23). Lyon fell after driving Steyn straight to AB de Villiers in the covers as Australia collapsed in just 18 overs.
"It was a strange day," admitted Rudolph, "to see so many wickets falling in two or three hours. But the captain said to put it behind us and go out firing."