An intense struggle conducted at the highest levels between two reformed swashbucklers held a large third-day crowd in thrall as the Melbourne Test match retained its fascination yesterday. Brett Lee and Herschelle Gibbs were magnificent as they tried to secure an advantage for their team. Seldom has the battle between the unstoppable force and the immovable object been as compelling.
The Australian quick bowler Lee sent down bumpers, sandshoe crushers and late swingers. Gibbs, the South African bat, stood his ground, periodically emerging from behind his barricade to put away errant deliveries. It was a titanic tussle.
Abandoning his wayward ways in the interests of his team, Gibbs batted superbly. He had the misfortune to be recognised as a sporting prodigy before he had had time to sup his first ale. Delighted to discover that he could enjoy life without having to break sweat, he spent the ensuing decade drinking at the tap of pleasure. It took Jack the Lad an unconscionable time to become Herschelle the Significant. Now he constructed a mature innings in demanding conditions and against a relentless attack.
Resuming on 54, Gibbs set about the task of protecting his wicket with the sort of dedication more often detected in Jacques Kallis, his overnight partner. Eschewing shots reliant on eye, the right-hander worked hard for his runs. Previously inclined to rail against restriction, he gave the bowling its due. Not that he was entirely inactive. When the chance came he unfurled some lovely strokes, most of them through the covers. Spotting a wide offering from Stuart MacGill, he seized upon it with the eagerness of a child at chocolate.
Having defied his opponents for 265 minutes, Gibbs deserved a hundred but was denied by Andrew Symond's precisely pitched off-cutter. Lee took the other important wickets, those of Kallis and Jacques Rudolph. He pushed Kallis back before unleashing a ferocious bumper that clattered on to the batsman's helmet. He followed with a fast inswinger directed at the base of the stumps. Upon hearing the sound of disturbed timber, Kallis held his position for an instant, puzzled that his defences had been breached.
Lee returned with the new ball and, switching to outswing, he produced a trimmer that burst through Jacques Rudolph's forward prod, not the easiest of tasks as these hosts discovered in Perth. Rudolph is a thoughtful type. Alerted that his time was up by the sound of breaking stumps, he reviewed the evidence, concluded that the ball had been a corker, nodded and departed.
Not that Lee worked alone. Symonds moved the ball around enough to take three wickets, and only Mark Boucher could rue his luck. Symonds' timely contribution may persuade the selectors to give him another chance. Shane Warne dismissed Ashwell Prince for the seventh time in nine meetings and smiled again as Nicky Boje swept injudiciously. Glenn McGrath bowled with his customary control but without much penetration.
Having bowled admirably, the Australians set about adding to their lead of 44 with the diligence required on an uneven surface. Phil Jaques departed as he tried to pull a ball too full for his purposes and Ricky Ponting was confounded by a low ball that must have alarmed his opponents. However, Matthew Hayden held firm till stumps were drawn at the end of another exhausting day. South Africa must be cursing the dropped catches that lie behind their current predicament.