Australia is nine wickets away from taking an unassailable 2-0 lead in the Boxing Day Test against South Africa, with the Proteas needing nothing less than a herculean batting performance to avoid an innings defeat in Melbourne.
Alex Carey was the hero for Australia on day three at the MCG, scoring a maiden Test century before the hosts declared at 8-575 on Wednesday afternoon.
South Africa was in early trouble at 1-15 with their captain back in the sheds before rain forced a premature end to proceedings.
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The start of day three was postponed 15 minutes due to rain, but once the weather improved, Travis Head brought up an 11th Test fifty before South African paceman Anrich Nortje knocked him over for 51 the following delivery.
David Warner, who on Tuesday retired hurt after bringing up a career-defining double century, received a rapturous applause from the MCG crowd as he walked out to continue his marathon knock.
But the left-hander sheepishly returned to the sheds the very next ball after Nortje bowled him with a low full toss that ricocheted off his pads onto the stumps.
Australian captain Pat Cummins survived the hat-trick delivery, but was dismissed by Kagiso Rabada for 4 the following over after a DRS review showed a faint murmur as the Kookaburra passed his bat.
The hosts had lost 3-5 in six deliveries, a dramatic passage of play considering day two was dominated by the bat.
Nathan Lyon provided an entertaining cameo with the bat before departing for 25, bringing the injured Cameron Green to the crease.
Despite suffering a fractured finger the previous evening, Green combined with Carey for a 117-run partnership to steer Australia’s lead past 350.
As Green carefully prodded and defended at one end, Carey accelerated at the other, smacking the weary Proteas pace attack to all corners of the iconic venue.
The South Australian reached his maiden Test century with a cut stroke through the covers, becoming the seventh Australian men’s wicketkeeper to achieve the feat.
“It was nice to be able to consolidate from our start yesterday,” Carey told reporters at stumps.
“This one’s really special, obviously it’s a big moment. But it’s also great to help the Australian cricket team be in a strong position. That’s what we play for, to win games.
“You dream about it … you work hard every day to perform as best you can.
“I’m extremely proud. It’s been a bumpy journey … but I never gave up hope playing sport at the highest level.”
Carey departed for 111 shortly after, misjudging a bouncer from Marco Jansen and awkwardly swatting the ball in the air for a comfortable return catch.
Not long after Mitchell Starc joined Green in the middle, the West Australian brought up his sixth Test fifty with an extravagant cut stroke over point.
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Cummins finally declared the innings to a close after Starc, also nursing a finger injury, was struck flush in the helmet by a Jansen bouncer.
South Africa was tasked with scoring at least 386 to make Australia bat again, and their second innings couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start.
Facing his third delivery of the day, Proteas captain Dean Elgar gloved a Cummins delivery down the leg side with Carey taking a smart catch low to his right.
It was a devastating mode of dismissal for Elgar, who had just spent 145 overs in the field watching Australia’s batters obliterate his bowlers.
Starc bowled with the new ball from the other end, sporadically wiping blood from his wounded finger onto his pants.
“I’m really excited by the way Starcy is bowling with that finger,” Carey said.
“He came in about mid 140s and swung it so maybe it’s a good thing he’s got a nick in the digit.
“I’m pretty sure certain injuries have to be in splints or whatever. I’m not sure about his too much but the way that he’s bowling, I don’t have too many concerns for this match.”
The Proteas were reeling at 1-15 after seven overs when rain intervened. The second Test will resume on Thursday morning at 10am AEDT.
Australia XI: David Warner, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Steve Smith, Travis Head, Cameron Green, Alex Carey, Pat Cummins (c), Mitchell Starc, Nathan Lyon, Scott Boland
South Africa XI: Dean Elgar (c), Sarel Erwee, Theunis de Bruyn, Temba Bavuma, Khaya Zondo, Kyle Verreynne (wk), Marco Jansen, Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje, Lungi Ngidi
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