Clarke prospers in tricky conditions
Michael Clarke produced the best innings of his young Australia captaincy but South Africa edged an enthralling opening day of the first Test at Cape Town.
Clarke stood alone with an unbeaten century to help the tourists reach the close of a day shortened by rain and bad light at 214 for eight.
The 30-year-old defied a seaming Newlands wicket to score rapidly, finishing on 107 from 114 balls, all while his team-mates struggled against a Proteas attack led by the outstanding Dale Steyn.
The world’s top-ranked bowler snared four wickets and could have added Clarke to that list early on when he tested the Australia skipper to the full with a torrid onslaught of short-pitched bowling.
That Clarke survived it, after arriving at the crease with his side 40 for three, made his knock all the more laudable and defied suggestions from his detractors he lacks the stomach for Australia’s top job.
Clarke’s resilience aside, however, the decision of Proteas captain Graeme Smith to bowl on a green-tinged wicket was fully justified as only Shaun Marsh, with 44, and Mitchell Johnson, who made 20, joined their captain in reaching double figures.
Proteas debutant Vernon Philander provided a solid foil for Steyn with three wickets of his own, as they made early inroads after rain delayed the start by one hour and 15 minutes.
Steyn made the initial breakthrough when he squared up Shane Watson and caught an outside edge that flew to the safe hands of Jacques Kallis at second slip.
Philander was celebrating his first Test scalp moments later when he induced a fine edge from Phil Hughes through to wicketkeeper Mark Boucher.
That left Australia 13 for two and, although they reached lunch without further loss, Ricky Ponting fell soon after the resumption.
The former skipper played across the line of a straight ball from Steyn and was given out lbw on review to bring Clarke to the crease.
His arrival prompted an enthralling battle with Steyn, who had the right-hander riding his luck with a battery of deliveries to leave Clarke hell bent only on survival.
But Clarke did survive and slowly asserted his authority with back-to-back cover drives for four off Kallis helping release the shackles.
Marsh’s stoic support was proving just as vital and he too started to find the boundaries as they neared tea.
Their stand passed the century mark but, with an over to go before the break, Smith reintroduced Steyn and he produced a vicious inswinger to trap Marsh with his first ball back.
The movement off the wicket was still evident when the players re-appeared for the final session when Morne Morkel found the inside edge of Mike Hussey through to Boucher.
The out-of-sorts Brad Haddin then recklessly cut Steyn to gully before Philander removed Johnson, after a brief cameo, and Ryan Harris. Johnson limply pulled to midwicket and Harris top-edged to mid-on, Morkel taking both catches.
Clarke remained steadfast and fittingly brought up his century, his second in four games since taking over as captain, with an eye-catching cover drive to the ropes.
But soon after the umpires called the players off for bad light with just 55 overs completed in a day South Africa could claim as theirs despite Clarke's innings.