The first day of the first Test against New Zealand finished in favour of the visitors as every time South Africa came at them with a flurry of counterattacking strokes, the Black Caps bowlers would strike, leaving the hosts on 236 for eight when bad light ended play at Kingsmead in Durban on Friday.
South Africa had won the toss and elected to bat first and, under overcast skies. The first hour was always going to be tricky for openers Stephen Cook and Dean Elgar, but they batted sensibly to put on 33 for the first wicket.
Cook was the first to go, caught behind for 20 as left-arm paceman Trent Boult produced a fine delivery tight enough on off stump to force the batsman to play, and just nipping away to take the edge.
That brought Hashim Amla to the crease and he launched a thrilling assault, racing to 42 not out off just 41 balls, with nine fours, at lunch, leading South Africa to 94 for two at the end of the first session.
Elgar had fallen for 19, pushing hard at a delivery from Doug Bracewell that he should have left, and edging a comfortable catch to second slip.
The Proteas looked well placed to push on in the second session, Amla and JP Duminy adding 61 for the third wicket, but instead New Zealand regained the ascendancy.
Duminy looked solid enough in going to 14 but he then pulled a short ball from left-armer Neil Wagner straight to fine leg, an unfortunate way to get out for a batsman who is already under some pressure to keep his place in the team.
Amla completed a 62-ball half-century, just his fourth in 10 Tests at Kingsmead, but he was out soon after, Boult again producing an excellent delivery, tight on off-stump and then nipping back to find the inside edge, from where it deflected off the batsman’s thigh to wicketkeeper BJ Watling.
The Black Caps bowlers squeezed the Proteas admirably for the rest of the session, just 52 runs coming in 27 overs as the hosts reached tea on 146 for four.
The Proteas have spoken about being more positive and throwing the first punch more often, but captain Faf du Plessis was obdurate to the extreme, scoring 23 off 84 balls, his two-hour stay being ended by a spectacular catch in the gully by Kane Williamson, who dived and stuck out a hand to give Wagner his second wicket.
But Temba Bavuma and Quinton de Kock launched another sally and seemed to have turned the momentum around as they added 48 off 61 balls, before their enterprise was ended by two wickets in three balls from left-arm spinner Mitchell Santner, of all people on a pitch where the seamers had held sway all day.
De Kock had advanced down the pitch twice in a row to hit Santner over the top for boundaries, but did it again next ball and skewed an ugly shot to be caught for 33, while Bavuma missed a sweep two balls later and was given out LBW, the TV review confirming umpire Ian Gould’s decision.
Bavuma had looked in firm control in scoring 46, impressing almost as much as Amla did.
Vernon Philander (8) was another soft dismissal as he drove Wagner off the back foot, straight to mid-off, before Kagiso Rabada (14*) and Dale Steyn (2*) took South Africa through to the close, predictably due to bad light.
As a predictor of how New Zealand will fare with the bat, South Africa’s effort had too many soft dismissals to allow any certainty as to how well they are placed.
But Amla, who usually sees the sunny side of life, felt the Proteas were not in a good position.
“The pitch played pretty much like a standard Kingsmead wicket, so 236 for eight is not a great position. Quite a few batsmen got in but did not capitalise, but hopefully we can scrape together a few more runs tomorrow. It was encouraging that some guys batted nicely, but Test cricket is about scoring big runs, especially in the first innings,” Amla said.
Boult was the obvious threat in the New Zealand attack and finished with two for 42 in 17 overs, but the flood of wickets continued for fellow left-armer Wagner, who claimed three for 47 in 15 overs.
The two wickets of Santner, at a cost of 22 runs in 11 overs, were unexpected though and were what really hurt South Africa late in the day.