South Africa wasted a sure start in tricky conditions to slump to 191 for seven at stumps on the first day of the first test against New Zealand at the University Oval in Dunedin on Wednesday.
Too many of the South African batsmen rinsed their hands of the responsibility of batting all day – on a shortened day of 59 overs – instead settling for all-too-brief displays of authority that did not wrest the advantage away from a New Zealand side that was typically determined and astute.
Captain Graeme Smith dominated the first session after South Africa had lost the toss and been sent in to bat two hours before tea, rain having washed out the entire morning session, and had reached tea on 53 not out from just 69 balls.
The left-hander profited from some confused lines of attack from the New Zealand bowlers, but his team never recovered from the rash shot he played in the first over after the break as the home side claimed six wickets from 33 overs to end the day in charge.
Trent Boult, the left-arm seamer, had claimed the first wicket of the day when he trapped Alviro Petersen lbw for 11, but it was the only success for New Zealand in a mediocre first session that saw Smith and Hashim Amla take their team through to the interval on 86 for one.
The drama started almost immediately after the break as Chris Martin claimed three wickets in four balls to send South Africa crashing to 90 for four.
Smith was the first to fall, failing to add to his score at tea. Martin beat Smith with a couple of fine away-swingers outside off stump and then, when he dished up a wide half-volley, Smith’s instinctive reaction was to lash out and try and impose himself again.
But the ball was so wide and going further away that Smith could not hit it cleanly, instead offering a straightforward catch to Rob Nicol at a shortish cover.
Martin began his next over in brilliant fashion as he whistled a delivery on to the shoulder of a squared-up Jacques Kallis’s bat, Ross Taylor diving to his left at first slip to take a sharp catch as the ball flew between him and wicketkeeper Kruger van Wyk.
Kallis being dismissed for a duck should have caused some alarm in the complacent South African camp, but AB de Villiers was slow to react to his first delivery, not moving his feet and playing all around a delivery that jagged back into him from Martin.
Unfortunately for New Zealand, while Amla and Jacques Rudolph were battling to see off Martin at the one end, they made merry against the undisciplined bowling of Tim Southee and Boult at the other.
The overcast skies under which South Africa had been sent in were beginning to clear though and, counter-intuitively, conditions became more sporty for the bowlers as the day warmed up.
One of the most rivetting contests of the day was between veteran left-arm spinner Daniel Vettori and Amla.
The Bearded Wonder had played some typically thrilling strokes in his 62, which included eight fours and a six off Vettori, but you always sensed he was trying to over-attack the canny former New Zealand captain.
Amla’s concentration lapsed – like so many of his teammates – as he tried to cut the fourth ball after the drinks break and edged Vettori, Van Wyk gloving the ball to slip Taylor.
South Africa’s slap-dash cricket was particularly prevalent in their running between the wickets, where they took many ill-judged risks and a run out was always on the cards.
It finally came in the 44th over with the demise of Mark Boucher, who did not get much of a chance to silence his critics as he hit his first ball for four and was run out off his second.
A crazy single to backward point and the quick reactions of Doug Bracewell enabled the South African-born Van Wyk, who left for New Zealand as he found his career blocked by Boucher, to get his name on the scorecard in his debut test and, coincidentally, his 100th first-class match.
Van Wyk, a contemporary of Rudolph’s at Affies and the Titans, showed slick glovework to gather Bracewell’s throw on the bounce and quickly break the stumps to catch Boucher just short of his ground.
Bracewell also always seemed to be doing something with the ball and gained his reward when he got Dale Steyn out for nine, a fine away-swinger, that also bounced more than expected, being edged to second slip, where it burst through Martin Guptill’s hands but went to Taylor at first slip, very nearly slipping through his grasp as well.
Bracewell could easily have had Rudolph out on 32 in his previous over, seemingly trapping the left-hander plumb lbw. But the intervention of the third umpire, after the on-field umpire had refused the appeal, led to the exposé that the bustling seamer had over-stepped the line and bowled a no-ball.
Rudolph (46*) and Vernon Philander (4* off 37 balls) then steered South Africa to stumps in sombre fashion, a stark contrast to the shot-making parties that the top-order seemed to be enjoying.
Rudolph has looked composed and in the proper test cricket frame of mind of wearing down the bowlers, while Philander won many admirers for his restraint and dogged defence late in the day.
Martin was the best of the New Zealand bowlers with three for 34 in 14 overs, but the important work done by Vettori (15-4-31-1) and Bracewell (14-2-39-1) in stemming the run-flow and frustrating the batsmen should not be underestimated.
The South Africans have much work to do to prevent the impression that they have once again badly underestimated the fighting qualities of seemingly inferior opposition.