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Skipper digs in to lead South African recovery

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Chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age

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Timely ton: South African skipper Graeme Smith celebrates his century on Friday.

Timely ton: South African skipper Graeme Smith celebrates his century on Friday. Photo: Getty Images

THIS was Test cricket in its more usual guise, three an over rather than five, personified by the image of Graeme Smith, who was on the field all day - indeed has not been off it yet in the match - but whose most frenetic action was to shuffle between creases. Otherwise, he waited for the catches, bowlers and runs to come to him, and at length they all did.

So old-fashioned was this day that as decisive a factor as any other in the give and take was the ample fortification that is Smith's rump. First, it obscured wicketkeeper Matthew Wade's view as Smith, in a rare flight of fancy, advanced with intent on Michael Clarke. By the time Wade saw the ball as it squirted between bat and pad, it was too late to adjust, and a stumping went begging.

If Wade did not know previously that Test cricket was an unforgiving game, he learnt it this day; in his every endeavour, nothing quite came to hand. Eventually, he made a stumping, but only after a busker-length juggle. Perhaps he was as surprised as unsurpriseable Hashim Amla at the spin extracted by the seventh of eight bowlers used by Australia. Here was the Warne in David Warner.

On this pitch, featureless and infertile as the Nullarbor Plain, neither side could afford to be fussy about its wickets. Alviro Petersen donated Australia's other. Such a lull had come over the match that Petersen's dab to mid-on must have looked simply to be his 55th and the 139th of his opening stand with Smith. But, suddenly, he found he had to swerve around Smith, rumbling towards him like a pantechnicon. Michael Hussey's hit beat Petersen's lunge, a replay confirming what the players knew, because they always know. It is not known whether Smith apologised or tooted.

At 78, every Australian, umpire Richard Kettleborough and seemingly even non-striker Amla thought Smith had been caught at the wicket from James Pattinson. But a forensic search of all devices by the third umpire revealed not even a lukewarm spot. Perhaps the noise was Smith creaking; in all that he does, he looks as if he needs oiling.

It was that sort of day for Australia. In the morning, it allowed South Africa a foot back in the door. In the afternoon, it could not dislodge it. Temperamentally, this sort of game, stoic and attritional, Test as trial, suits South Africa, which prefers to claw back games rather than seize them from the start. So have many AFL premierships been won; so is South Africa No. 1. As far as these trekkers are concerned, top dog is frontier territory, and the wagons must be circled every night.

Smith is a hard nut who gives the impression that even if he did not use a bat, the ball would rebound from his body just as forcefully. To opposition eyes, he must seem not so much a presence at the crease as a growth. But he is disciplined and highly organised in his batsmanship, and has a tough mind, and these qualities have taken him far. If his stroke production seems wooden, so is the Exhibition Buildings.

Petersen is more fluent. At his best, the delivery and the shot appear as one continuous movement. This day, he was restrained, but at length seemed to medicate even himself.

South Africa hit fewer boundaries than Australia and scored at a more meditative rate, partly because it batted more watchfully and partly because Australia bowled a better length than the South Africans.

But this was the sort of afternoon on which moral victory for a bowler was to deny the batsman a shot from the sweet spot.

They exerted themselves fully, but like many in the crowd only grew redder in the face. Australia did not achieve even as much as a decision it could refer.

Nathan Lyon spun the ball, but at best could be said to have threatened to threaten; it is the off-spinner's lot.

Reputedly, he is developing a counter-intuitive backspinner, which he has nicknamed ''Jeff'', but unlike the namesake ex-Victorian premier, it was rarely seen, and innocuous when it was.

Even for Clarke, the great innovator, the well ran dry. The fact is that Australia took wickets by run-out and via Warner, and its only other chance was missed from the bowling of Clarke, quirks all. The pitch played its part by not playing its part, but do not damn it yet; there are three days and much turf-crumbling sunshine to come, and Adelaide Tests have a recent habit of going down to the wire.

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