AUSTRALIA won back-to-back post-lunch sessions to take firm control of the opening day of the first Sunfoil Test match against the Castle Lager Proteas at SuperSport Park on Wednesday.
Having lost the toss and been required to bat first, the visitors showed signs of their recent top-order frailties when they were reduced to 98/4 in the first half-hour of the afternoon session.
But the rot was swiftly stopped by Shaun Marsh and Steve Smith who shared an unbroken fifth-wicket stand of 199 in 56 overs to take Australia to an imposing 297/4 by the close.
Along the way Marsh notched up his second Test match century (174 balls, 11 fours) after four-and-a-half hours at the crease, his first against the Proteas and the first since his century on debut against Sri Lanka nearly four years ago. By the close he had gone on to 122 (232 balls, 12 fours).
Smith, who was making his Test debut against South Africa, was well poised for his fourth Test century being 9 runs short at the close (178 balls, 12 fours).
Marsh played an innings of great maturity against the background of needing a big score to retain his place. He was happy to bide his time at the start, reaching only 23 by the lunch interval and scoring a further two runs in the half-hour after lunch when the Proteas pace attack produced a good effort to take the wicket of Michael Clarke at a cost of only 30 runs in 13 overs.
Smith, by contrast, was a bundle of intensity, putting pressure on the Proteas fielders with his sharp running between the wickets.
Marsh gave a very difficult chance to Hashim Amla in the gulley but otherwise the closest the Proteas came to a wicket was through a run out when they should have caught Marsh short of his ground just before the partnership reached 100.
The pitch was a slow one and appeared to go very flat after lunch but only time will tell when the Proteas get their chance to bat if that is the case.
Morne Morkel was the pick of the South African attack, bowling throughout the day well into the 140km/h zone and causing a degree of discomfort with the bounce that he obtained.
Some of the other bowlers appeared to struggle for intensity in later spells, possibly through their lack of multi-day cricket over the past month. It is the same problem that the Australian attack will have to deal with later in the match. In addition, Dale Steyn struggled to overcome a gastro infection which must certainly have drained his strength and endurance.
The Proteas opted for Ryan McLaren to replace the retired Jacques Kallis in the only change to the side that played their last Test match against India while Australia gave a first Test cap to Alex Doolan. It was McLaren’s first Test match since his debut against England in 2010 and he marked the occasion by dismissing Doolan.