Johannesburg: Championed by the indomitable Dale Steyn, South Africa rumbled back into contention with a flurry of wickets to ensure Australia undid a dominant morning with a desperately poor afternoon. Having blazed to 169 for 0 at lunch, Australia slid to 296 all out after tea, a lead of 30 counterbalanced by the fact that a deteriorating pitch will make the fourth innings difficult. Graeme Smith survived four balls before bad light ended play.
South Africa, as strong sides tend to do, redoubled their efforts after a poor start to the day, and as in Cape Town, where they were razed for 47 in the second innings, Australia were unable to lift themselves accordingly. The hosts’ resurgence was epitomised by Dale Steyn, who compensated for a dip in pace by swerving the older ball deviously, and Imran Tahir, innocuous against Watson and Hughes but mightily effective against a supine lower order.
Phillip Hughes and Shane Watson can be proud of a stand of 174, but at least one had to go on to a match-shaping score. Ricky Ponting’s exit, lbw again, will seriously threaten his place in the team, as will another inconsequential score for Brad Haddin.
In the first session, which started early due to the bad light that truncated day one, Hughes and Watson confronted a handful of difficult early deliveries with the new ball, but there was no more movement off the pitch than might be expected on any Test match morning, and little through the air.
Steyn appeared to be down on speed after his Cape Town exertions, and it was Philander and Morkel who posed greater questions. Hughes was into the 30s by the time the hosts manufactured a chance, the batsman flicking off his hip to short leg, where Hashim Amla spilled a difficult catch.
Hughes should have been out on 38, squeezing an inside edge onto his pad and through to Mark Boucher from the bowling of Jacques Kallis. But the South African appeal was unconvincing, and no referral was called for. When it was, for a Watson lbw appeal by Tahir, an equally thick inside edge was detected.
Aside from this helping of luck, and Watson’s risky penchant for driving in the air through the offside, Australia’s batting demonstrated tremendous power, aggression and resolve. Watson was a little slower between the wickets than usual due to his hamstring injury but never lax in his foot movement, while Hughes began to look like the buccaneering opener who had plundered a century in each innings against South Africa in Durban in 2009.
Both batsmen saved perhaps their best strokes for passing the half-century mark. Hughes rolled his wrists over a precise cut shot and Watson punched off the back foot through cover with the sort of impudence Steyn is not used to facing.
By the interval Tahir had been warned for running on the pitch, and the hosts were doubly ruing their wasteful strokes on the first afternoon.
South Africa returned more focused from the lunch break, and set about tying down Watson and Hughes. Results did not take too long: Hughes cut at a ball too close to him and presented a catch to the slips for the third time in as many innings this series.
As he has often done on the outskirts of a century, Watson was becalmed, and ultimately chose the wrong ball to pull, swinging Kallis to deep midwicket where Tahir held a vital low catch. Usman Khawaja handled his first few deliveries with care and attention redolent of the man he has replaced in the side, the injured Shaun Marsh, but Ponting would not be joining him for long.
Steyn’s first ball to Ponting was precise, seaming back enough to strike the pads in line with the stumps. Steyn was exultant, and a disconsolate Ponting did not even bother to refer the decision. It was his 27th innings without a Test century.
Clarke was struck amidships early in his innings, drawing a combination of cheers and sympathetic groans when the replay was shown on the Wanderers’ big screen, and would still have been sore when he failed to ride Morkel’s bounce with a flashy forcing stroke and edged to first slip.
Michael Hussey and Khawaja fought out the session, but they had not long returned when Steyn began curling the ball back into them. Khawaja was pinned in front of middle and wasted a DRS referral, then Hussey went back when he might have come forward and had his stumps splayed.
Haddin made sure not to be out in the X-rated manner of the second innings at Newlands, but misjudged Tahir’s turn to be lbw for 16, and Peter Siddle might have been the first man ever to receive a googly, so badly did he misread it.
Pat Cummins hung around long enough to take the tourists into the lead, but Steyn’s return brought more swing and an edge that was claimed neatly by Mark Boucher, diving in front of first slip. Johnson hit out ably for 38, but the fact he was the next highest score after the openers when Nathan Lyon was lbw to another Tahir googly said rather too much about Australia’s batting.