FAST bowler Dale Steyn ripped through Australia to take 4-31 and put South Africa on top on the first day of the opening test overnight, despite a fighting unbeaten century by Michael Clarke.
Steyn struck at crucial times to start the two-match series in ominous form, and debutant Vernon Philander provided strong backup with 3-54 as Australia struggled to 214-8 when bad light ended play.
In bowler-friendly conditions at Newlands, Steyn dismissed Shane Watson early, Ricky Ponting straight after lunch, Shaun Marsh just before tea and Brad Haddin in the final session.
Only Clarke provided prolonged resistance, holding Australia’s innings together single-handedly with a stylish 107 not out from 114 balls. The captain hit 17 fours and shared a 103-run partnership with Marsh (44) from 40-3 before another slide late in the day by the tourists.
“The ball did swing around,” Steyn said. “We went at a little bit more than we wanted to with the run rate but if you asked us at the start of the day if we wanted eight wickets, we would have taken that. A good day.”
Clarke led Australia’s fightback with a classic counterattacking innings following the early onslaught from a Steyn-inspired South Africa on a juicy pitch in Cape Town which favored the fast men throughout most of the day.
The Australia captain also rode an uncomfortable spell early in his innings – when he was the target of some short-pitched stuff from a fired-up Steyn – before unleashing a flurry of boundaries for his second straight test century and 16th career hundred.
“All I can picture is I started horribly,” Clarke said. “I just couldn’t get my head out of the way and Steyn kept getting it closer and closer to my head.
“It’s a very special hundred. I guess mainly because of the pressure when I went out there and it’s always nice to step up and lead from the front on a pretty tough day after being sent in.”
Clarke and Marsh looked set to take Australia to tea in reasonable shape, but Steyn returned to remove Marsh lbw in the final over of the second session to break the one meaningful partnership and leave the visitors on 143-4.
After tea, Morne Morkel (1-58) had Mike Hussey caught behind for 1, and Haddin (5), Mitchell Johnson (20) and Ryan Harris (5) fell in quick succession to give South Africa a clear edge.
“We know we’ve got to work hard,” Clarke said. “Hopefully we can scratch out a few more. If we can scratch 250-plus, I think we’ve done a very good job from here.”
At the start of the day, Australia lost both openers inside six overs as South Africa’s quick men applied early pressure in a rain-delayed opening session.
Australia was 39-2 at lunch after Watson and Phil Hughes fell to a combination of swing and seam movement from Steyn and Philander.
Watson edged an away-swinger from Steyn to Jacques Kallis at slip in the fifth over to be out for 3. Hughes was removed for 9 when Philander nipped a ball away off the seam and the left-hander nicked it to wicketkeeper Mark Boucher for the bowler’s first test wicket – and Boucher’s 500th catch in tests.
The opening skirmishes of the battle started nearly two hours late because of the rain, prompting South Africa to put Australia in to bat at the coastal ground, which hasn’t hosted a test this early in the South African season for 90 years.
One of two debutants for the Proteas alongside legspinner Imran Tahir, Philander troubled Hughes early with a bustling, aggressive spell after being given the new ball ahead of Morkel.
Steyn made the initial breakthrough, however, with a full and fast delivery which squared up Watson and flew to Kallis at slip.
Hughes had sent a thick outside edge wide of third slip and away for his only boundary, but he fell in the sixth over – nine balls after Watson – as Australia slipped to 13-2 before Marsh and Ponting battled through to lunch.
Ponting went for 8 in the second over after lunch when he overbalanced to a full, swinging delivery from Steyn and was struck on the pads. South Africa sent the lbw appeal to video review after umpire Billy Doctrove initially gave it not out – and was rewarded.
Clarke was forced to duck and weave, at one point ending up on his knees, as Steyn roared in after lunch. But the new skipper survived and responded with drives and cuts to the rope to lead the revival.
“We wanted to come really hard at someone like Clarkey,” Steyn said. “When he came out there we thought let’s hit him hard. But congratulations to him, he batted bloody well.”
Clarke reached 50 off 56 balls and also passed 5,000 career runs to force the South Africans onto the back foot before Steyn’s crucial dismissal of Marsh off the first ball of his new spell just before tea.
Steyn continued in the final session, sending Haddin on his way with a classic outswinger before Philander removed Johnson and Harris in an impressive debut on his home ground.
In between, Clarke sent a superb cover drive to the boundary for his century off just 108 balls, one of his best innings considering the bowler-friendly conditions throughout the 55 overs bowled on the first day.
“Every hundred you score for Australia is special,” Clarke added, “but I’m really happy with that.”-AP