South Africa 254 for 4 (Prince 77*, Gibbs 58*) trail Pakistan 313 (Younis 68, Hameed 65, Ntini 5-83) by 59 runs
For much of last year Ashwell Prince carried the South African batting line-up and 2007 is starting in a similar vein. After playing a major role in the team's back-from-behind triumph over India he has now resisted everything the Pakistan attack could throw at him. That included an inspired return to international cricket for Mohammad Asif, whose four wickets kept the visitors in the hunt at Centurion Park but Prince took the honours for South Africa.
He showed the application that was severely lacking in the Pakistan innings, which subsided amid a further flurry of poorly executed cross-batted strokes during the morning session. No less than six players fell trying to hook or pull against a plan from the South African pacers that was clearly telegraphed.
The approach from Prince, and Hashim Amla who joined him in a vital fourth-wicket stand of 90, was a marked contrast. They patiently waited for the loose deliveries and were quick to dispatch anything wayward to the fence. When Amla became Asif's fourth wicket, in Asif's first international appearance since the tour of England in September, Herschelle Gibbs formed an equally solid alliance. The evening session was especially productive as 124 runs came against a tiring attack.
The middle-order performance from South Africa is put into context by the precarious position they encountered. Asif, finding plenty of swing from a full length, had dispatched three of the best either side of lunch to outline his standing as the most impressive young pace talent in the world.
Asif made a mark as early as his 11th delivery when he got one to move just enough to catch Graeme Smith's outside edge. AB de Villiers didn't last much longer and having just about negotiated one that seamed in the next over, he fell next ball to one that looked a replica, except it seamed away and took the edge.
Jacques Kallis was put through a torrid examination before lunch and after it, Asif, recharged by the break, undid him with a clever outswinger. Constantly pitching the ball up to extract every last ounce of swing, Kallis was drawn into a jab outside off, Younis Khan plucking a sharp chance at second slip. The problem for Pakistan was that the pressure wasn't always maintained from the other end. Shahid Nazir experienced a no-ball problem which plagued his first spell, while Rana Naved-ul-Hasan leaked boundaries by dropping too short and wide. Even Asif had his problems, overstepping 11 times.
Prince thrives on a crisis and set about rebuilding the innings. The momentum was helped as he found a clutch of early boundaries and his positive intent rubbed off on Amla who began to expand his strokeplay. The selectors have shown faith in Amla for their No. 3 position despite the claims of Jacques Rudolph and Boeta Dippenaar, but slowly they are being rewarded as his third Test fifty came off 89 balls. Just when more significant rewards were there for the taking he pushed at another well-pitched outswinger from Asif although Pakistan couldn't build on the breakthrough. Like Amla, Gibbs hasn't been full of runs in recent times but his long-term record is being trusted. Some of the thunderous drives and pulls in his 89-ball half-century suggested the good times aren't far away.
How Pakistan would have wished for similar application from their remaining batsmen earlier in the day, having resumed on 242 for 5. However, the hooker's curse from the first day struck again as Ntini slipped a short one to Inzamam, two balls after having a strong leg-before shout turned down, who obligingly hooked to deep square-leg.
Three overs later, Kamran Akmal failed to learn from those above him, attempting another hook off the persevering Andre Nel. It meant that Pakistan's entire middle order - from Yasir Hameed to Akmal - all perished hooking or pulling. Ntini and Nel cleaned up the tail although Naved-ul-Hasan produced some defiant blows. But whereas the South Africans hunted as a pack, Pakistan's bowling effort was a one-man effort and it has left them needing quick wickets to if they don't want to concede a significant lead.