Boucher holds Australia back

A crucial late partnership between Mark Boucher and Andre Nel handed South Africa a marginal advantage at the close of a fascinating third day in Johannesburg.

Australia began the day more than 50 runs behind on the first innings, and Brett Lee continued where he left off on the second evening, pushing past a well-deserved half century to further reduce the gap. His innings wasn’t without controversy however, as he edged Shaun Pollock to first slip on 45 where Dippenaar took a low, clean catch. Lee remained at his crease for the umpire’s decision despite the confidence of the fielder, and batted on when the decision came back in the negative. Replays suggesteded that Dippenaar got his fingers under the ball.

Lee managed 64 from 68 balls, his highest score in tests, and was the last man to be dismissed as Justin Langer declined to return for a bat in the first innings due to his persisting head injury. Makhaya Ntini gathered his sixth wicket with Lee’s dismissal, and in the process registered the best figures by a South African in the series, and ensured a 33 run lead for his side on the first innings.

As has been the custom throughout the series, Brett Lee terrorised the South African openers with a wonderful spell to begin the second innings. Bowling with pace and significant movement through the air, Lee consistently beat the bat, but it was his opening partner that took the wickets. Clark began the innings with three consecutive maidens, showing accuracy and seam movement reminiscent of the man he replaced, Glenn McGrath. His line offered a consistent threat to the batsman, and his nagging accuracy prompted a poor decision from AB De Villiers, who looked to leave outside off-stump, only to have the ball seam back sharply and take the bail.

At 1 for 9 and with Herschelle Gibbs in terrible form all series, South Africa might have feared a collapse before lunch, but Gibbs found surprising strength in a counter-attack that blew Brett Lee from the attack and sent the lead climbing at a dangerous rate for the visitors. Ponting was presented with further problems when Michael Kasprowicz was forced to leave the field with a back complaint after just two overs, but Stuart Clark once again delivered in his sensational debut series, with his second scalp. Boeta Dippenaar attempted to crash the ball throught he off-side, but succeeded only in presenting Matthew Hayden with a tough chance in gully, which he took well.

The overs before lunch showed some surprising innovations from Ricky Ponting, as he avoided bowling Shane Warne before the break, electing instead to use Andrew Symonds and himself to fill in the final overs. Ponting’s innocuous swing bowling caused few problems, and South Africa went to lunch two wickets down, with the match evenly poised.

Gibbs reached a deserved half-century after the break, having shown more comfort on the difficult surface than any other batsman in his side, but fell to a soft dismissal when he chipped Warne to mid-on. The loss of the aggressive opener caused a sharp dip in the scoring rate, as just 20 runs were added in the hour after lunch. The loss off initiative proved costly, as South Africa suffered a mini-collapse in the period before the tea break, putting Australia in control once more.

Aside from the pressure on the scoring, the trigger for the collapse was a lucky break for Shane Warne, as Ashwell Prince played back to a leg-break and the ball flicked his pad on the way to Andrew Symonds at leg-slip. The bat appeared to miss the ball, and the appeal from the Australians was half-hearted, but umpire Bucknor raised his finger nevertheless. From there, Australia picked up the wickets of Kallis and Rudolph in quick succession, as Clark took his third when he trapped the South African captain in front, and his fourth when Rudolph a straight ball outside off through to Gilchrist.

At tea, South Africa were 193 runs ahead at 6/160, and needed a boost of at least 50 runs to ensure a competitive target on a wicket that is playing more tricks each session. It was Shaun Pollock, promoted to bat at number 6, who joined Mark Boucher to give his team the necessary boost with an aggressive innings of 40. Shane Warne in particular suffered at his hands, but even the miserly Clark was sent to the boundary as South Africa’s lead moved past 200. Pollock’s assault was brief, having began just before the tea break and ending soon after, but it was significant nonetheless.

When Lee had the all-rounder caught behind, and Warne grabbed Boje soon after with a horrible full toss, the door was open again for Australia to finish the innings quickly with the fragile tail exposed. Mark Boucher had other ideas, and through guarding Andre Nel as he had in the second test he pushed the score gradually higher, frustrating the Australian bowlers with solid defence and occasional attack, as the light rapidly faded and with it the chance for Australia to begin their chance first thing on day four. Boucher and Nel kept the Australians out for 13 overs, adding another 56 to the growing lead before the light was offered and Boucher left the field with another gritty half-century behind him.

The stage is now perfectly set for an intruiging finish to the series. South Africa lead by a challenging 283 runs with two wickets remaining and two days to play, meaning that time is scarcely a factor. The only issues to be resolved is how many Australia will chase, and whether or not they can make the runs. The early overs on the fourth day will be crucial in determining the size of the chase, as the pitch continues to supply seam movement and increasing uneven bounce, and any target in excess of 300 will be difficult work.

Score Summary
South Africa 303
Ashwell Prince 93, Nicky Boje 43
Brett Lee 3/57, Stuart Clark 3/81

Australia 270
Michael Hussey 73, Brett Lee 64
Makhaya Ntini 6/100, Nicky Boje 1/10

South Africa 8/250
Mark Boucher 55*, Herschell Gibbs 53
Stuart Clark 4/64, Shane Warne 3/83

South Africa lead by 283 with two days remaining.
Australia lead the three test series 2-0.

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