DURBAN – Ultimately, it was as tight and as tenaciously fought as expected.
Australia, having won the toss and taken first strike against South Africa on Thursday, scrapped to 225/5 after 76 overs when the increasingly dim conditions above finally called a halt to a most interesting day’s proceedings.
The day started hopefully for the hosts on day one of this Test series, as Morné Morkel went up for an optimistic leg-before shout to a nervous Cameron Bancroft off the third ball of the day.
The lanky Morkel tugged at the heartstrings of Faf du Plessis, who neglected talk of tennis-ball bounce and went upstairs.
Nope, the technology said.
While Bancroft (5) was soon put out of his misery by the persistent Vernon Philander, David Warner went about doing what he does against South Africa.
The impish Warner has now passed 1 000 runs against the Proteas in only 18 visits to the crease. Warner, too, survived a dice with disaster early on as Keshav Maharaj took the ball in the 11th over and promptly ripped one from outside off-stump and rapped Warner on the pad.
Perhaps it was the surprise of seeing a ball turn so prodigiously, so early into the Test, but again Du Plessis was convinced to venture upstairs.
Nope, the technology said once more.
Those miscalculations would come back to haunt South Africa when Kagiso Rabada had the obdurate Shaun Marsh in front, and umpire Kumar Dharmasena said not out on the field.
Replays suggested Rabada’s spearing delivery would have touched timber, but the home side had long used up their technology quota for the day.
Warner was eventually undone as the caterers laid out the cutlery for lunch, his duel with Philander ending in a sharp chance to third slip, where AB de Villiers held on smartly.
Rabada had a mixed bag of a day, as the visitors climbed into his pace when he strayed.
That said, he did find joy with a sharp delivery that went across Usman Khawaja (14) and found the edge, before being smartly snatched by a sprawling Quinton de Kock. Such plucks from the keeper have become so customary that there was no movement from his slip, Hashim Amla, and the applause was polite, not partisan.
Rabada, so often the thrust in the South African attack, looked short of a yard. With the second new ball just four overs away, his captain will need him back at his best on Friday.
While one of the best bowlers toiled, Steve Smith – the world’s most profitable run-maker in white clothing – gave a glimpse of the sickening sight the English had to observe earlier in the summer.
Smith dropped anchor and looked like he may settle in until the weekend, and there was genuine surprise when he edged Keshav Maharaj behind for 56.
Smith had stalled on 47 for a brief period, before reaching 50 off 90 balls. On a slow pitch in brilliant sunshine, it looked like this generation’s answer to Bradman might unfurl yet another mountain of runs.
Alas, cricket works in a funny way sometimes, and Smith muttered to himself all the way back to the sheds. He knew he was in, and he knew that his was a filthy way to get out. South Africa sighed, but knew the job was only half-done.
The brothers Marsh had swamped England in their last Ashes with a stand of 169 in Sydney, and Shaun was already settled at the crease.
Maharaj, having landed the big fish that is the Aussie skipper, greeted Mitchell with a pressure-free pie, and the Proteas resolved to roll up their sleeves.
All the talk has been about pace and batsmen in the build-up to this Test series, but there are two fine finger spinners in the mix, too.
In late summer conditions, parched by a national drought, it is the slow poison that may yet strike the decisive blows.
Maharaj bowled 24 overs on day one, and he foxed Shaun Marsh out with his wonderful control to finish with an encouraging 2/69.
When bad light cut the day 14 overs short, South Africa walked off the field satisfied with their containing job.
But with one Marsh still at the crease, and a free-hitting Pat Cummins to follow, they know that they are not nearly done.