THE tears wiped from their cheeks, Australia's farewelling of Ricky Ponting is off to a start they will happily take. Emotional wrecks a day earlier, having been herded into a hotel meeting room and told by the veteran of his impending retirement, Michael Clarke's brand-new attack left sentiment aside to leave South Africa with heads in hands in the deciding third Test.
The Proteas, at one point reeling at 6-75, were cleaned up for 225 and had their hero in Adelaide, Faf du Plessis (78 not out), to thank again for steering them clear of absolute catastrophe. There were late complications for Australia when a revved-up Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander, hungry for revenge, sent Ed Cowan (0) and Shane Watson (10) packing respectively in the afternoon. But David Warner (12 not out) and nightwatchman Nathan Lyon (7 not out) survived a dangerous twilight period, leaving Ponting under wraps for Saturday with Australia 2-33.
The late drama aside, the hosts will be content with how the first day unfolded. The contentious decision to replace the energy-sapped Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus, as well as the injured James Pattinson, with an entirely different pace unit was, on Friday's evidence, a masterstroke. A hunt through the archives suggested Australia hadn't done anything of the like, from one Test to another, since the 19th century.
Somewhere at a ground where his name emblazons a grandstand, John Inverarity, the national selector, would have been smiling, even just faintly. Whether it was a gamble or a very educated guess, it paid off immediately, as the Proteas collapsed, rudderless, in a disastrous period either side of lunch to 6-75. Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Johnson and John Hastings justified their inclusion, sharing the wickets around as South Africa self-destructed. In the afternoon picking an off-spinner, Lyon, was vindicated as well, ending the challenge of an irritating tail to claim 3-41.
Clarke's bowlers, none of them bar Lyon seen in Adelaide, were all impressive. From the moment Johnson, in his first Test in a year, softened up South Africa's captain, Graeme Smith, thundering a ball into his gloves in the morning, Australia were on top. Starc, sharing an end with his left-arm partner in crime, produced the two best deliveries of the day, a pair of identical in-swingers that felled the stumps of Alviro Petersen (30) and Jacques Kallis (2).
Meanwhile Hastings, on debut, enticed more edges than a U2 tribute band convention once he found his length. Watson, sharing the load into the wind and in his first Test at home in nearly two years, also showed just why he refuses to give up bowling. It was the all-rounder's precise, nagging output that led to the key top-order wicket of Smith, rumbling in without a sign of that calf strain to have him caught by Clarke on 16.
If Smith was not yet regretting his decision to bat - he had earlier won the toss - he might well have been an hour or so later. As batsman after batsman exited in quick succession - South Africa lost 4-6, then 5-14 - the only company for the lonely man remaining in the middle was the low-hovering Spidercam.
The floodgates were broken just before lunch by Starc when he ripped through Petersen and Kallis, posing the question: what were Australia missing, in Brisbane and Adelaide, when Starc's duties were limited to carting drink bottles?
After the break, South Africa sailed into even more troubled waters. In the first over, Hashim Amla should have been out, but his drive off Hastings was spilled by Cowan at short mid-wicket. He was still counting his lucky stars when A.B. de Villiers, in the very next over, called for a dicey run and was run out for 11 via a direct hit by Warner.
Hastings, denied a maiden Test wicket, did not have to wait long. In the third over after the intermission, his outswinger took care of de Villiers for four. Johnson collected a couple himself, his first thanks to an outstanding catch by Matthew Wade, before Lyon put a stop to the lower-order annoyance of Robin Peterson (31), Vernon Philander (30) and Morne Morkel (17).
If not for du Plessis's rearguard action, which followed his eight-hour, match-saving hundred on Monday, Australia could already have one hand on the ICC mace as Test cricket's new world No.1. Of course, after the dramatic second Test, they will be taking nothing for granted.