Pakistan skipper Sarfraz Ahmed won the toss and elected to bat first before his side were bowled out for 181 runs in their first innings. In response, the Proteas had reached 127-5 when stumps were drawn on day one.
At the end of an eventful day which saw a total of 15 wickets fall, we look at the key talking points.
OLIVIER BREAKS PAKISTAN’S BACK AS STEYN CREATES HISTORY
When Pakistan’s batsmen took the field at Centurion, they would have identified South Africa’s pacers Kagiso Rabada and Dale Steyn as their biggest threat. They were not wrong with the Proteas’ new-ball duo removing both openers early as Steyn leapfrogged Shaun Pollock to become his country’s all-time leading wicket-taker in Test cricket.
However, it was the unheralded Duanne Olivier who proved to be Pakistan’s undoing on day one with the seamer picking up a career-best 6-37.
The 26-year-old was fortuitous in picking up the scalps of Shan Masood and Asad Shafiq in the first session but there was no luck involved in his dismissals of Pakistan skipper Sarfraz Ahmed, Azhar Ali and Mohammad Amir as he notched up his maiden five-for in Test cricket.
The seamer kept pitching the ball in the right zones throughout the day and the six dismissals was just reward for his persistence and consistency. To upstage the likes of Rabada and Steyn is no mean feat and Olivier deserves all the recognition he gets after his six-wicket blitz.
Five wickets for Duanne Olivier!— ICC (@ICC) December 26, 2018
He's bowled with ferocious pace at Centurion and has deservedly picked up a first five-wicket haul of his Test career!
Follow the action live 👇https://t.co/ocuhHu0s31 pic.twitter.com/U9zdXC1kMQ
BABAR RESCUES PAKISTAN WITH COUNTER-ATTACKING SALVO
When Olivier picked up his fifth wicket, Pakistan had slumped to 96-7 and were in real danger of folding around the 100-run mark. That is when Babar Azam took matters into his own hands with the Pakistan batsman turning the tide with a counter-attacking half-century.
The 24-year-old looked extremely fluent while batting with the Pakistan tail as he took the attack to South Africa’s pacers. Dealing primarily in boundaries, Babar struck as many as 15 of them in his 79-ball stay at the crease which yielded 71 runs.
The right-hander forged a 67-run stand with Hasan Ali for the ninth wicket as he raced away to a brisk fifty on a difficult surface. His late assault on Steyn was a joy to watch for the neutrals with Babar smashing four boundaries in a single over to slightly blemish a record-breaking day for the veteran pacer.
By the time he fell for 71, Babar had ensured Pakistan reached a respectable total on a pitch which made batting look like hard work.
Babar Azam dominating Steyn might be the best thing for Pakistan fans today #SAvPAK— zainab abbas (@ZAbbasOfficial) December 26, 2018
PACERS KEEP PAKISTAN IN THE HUNT
With just 181 runs on the board to play with, Pakistan’s bowlers had their work cut out in the final session of the day at Centurion.
Despite a brisk 69-run stand for the fifth wicket, the visitors kept themselves in contention with their bowlers chipping away with regular wickets.
It was Hasan Ali who provided the initial breakthrough with a terrific delivery to dismiss Aiden Markram before Mohammad Amir ensured Hashim Amla’s wretched 2018 continued unabated.
Pakistan teenager Shaheen Afridi then picked up two scalps in as many deliveries as the hosts lost three quick wickets on the score of 43 without the addition of a single run.
Theunis de Bruyn and Temba Bavuma then forged together a half-century stand in quick-time to put South Africa back in front but Amir struck late in the day to keep Pakistan’s hopes intact as he got the better of the former.
With the Proteas still trailing in the first innings by 54 runs, Sarfraz and his men will believe they still have a chance of a positive result in the Test.
On a spicy track at the Centurion with plenty of assistance for pacers, Pakistan posted 181 runs in their first innings after skipper Sarfraz Ahmed elected to bat first. By stumps, the hosts had been reduced to 127-5 in their first innings response.
It was Babar Azam who was the standout batsman from both sides on Boxing Day with the Pakistan man registering a fluent quick-fire half-century.
Here, we take a closer look at Babar’s batting display on Wednesday.
RUNS SCORED: 71
BALLS FACED: 79
Arriving at the crease with Pakistan reeling at 62-4 and soon saw his side slump to 111-8. With Duanne Olivier breathing fire on the Centurion track, Babar broke the shackles with a counter-attacking innings which recused Pakistan from a precarious position.
The right-hander put on a batting exhibition in what was his first Test innings on South African soil as he slammed his 10th half-century in the format. Batting with the tail for company, Babar helped the tourists cross the 150-run mark with his attacking approach before becoming the penultimate Pakistan batsman to fall after edging a Kagiso Rabada delivery into the hands of Faf du Plessis.
Babar’s approach of taking the attack to South Africa’s bowlers paid off handsomely at the Centurion. With survival not an easy task for batsmen on a pitch with considerable aid for seamers, the 24-year-old chose to plunder runs whenever the opportunity presented itself instead of going into his shell.
His terrific counter-attack against Dale Steyn was a delight to watch in particular with the veteran pacer being made to look ordinary as Babar struck four boundaries in a single over.
More than his approach, it was Babar’s excellent shielding of the tail that ensured Pakistan posted a challenging first-innings total. His 67-run stand for the ninth wicket alongside Hasan Ali was a testament to that.
There is not much to be faulted in Babar’s innings given how the rest of the batsmen struggled on the pitch. Batting with the tail for company for the most part of his innings, it was only understandable that the Pakistan batsman primarily dealt in boundaries with little regards for quick singles and rotation of the strike.
His dismissal to Kagiso Rabada was the one rare bad shot which Babar had played all day. The Pakistan man didn’t need to chase a wider delivery which was moving away from his body and he paid the price for his reckless shot by edging the ball towards the slips where a gleeful Faf Du Plessis made no mistake.
Babar Azam scored 84.5 % of his 71-run knock through boundaries - 15 fours.— Sampath Bandarupalli (@SampathStats) December 26, 2018
No other Pakistan batsman has scored more runs in a Test innings with even 80% of the runs via boundaries. #SAvPAK
On a pitch where 15 wickets fell in a single day with both sets of batsmen struggling to come to terms, Babar’s innings was worth its weight in gold. Had the batsman been dismissed early, Pakistan could have been looking at a first-innings total well under 120. Instead, his swashbuckling innings has given the tourists a real fighting chance in the Test.
It was an innings very much in the vein of the quick-fire knocks registered by AB de Villiers in South Africa’s home series against India at the start of the year. De Villiers’ counter-attacking cameos had made the difference on many occasions in that series and Babar’s efforts on Wednesday were not too dissimilar.
In the end, that 71-run knock could well be the difference between victory and defeat for Pakistan given how the first day unfolded at the Centurion.
RATING – 9/10
Mark Nicholas during Babar Azam's innings "This is batting of the highest quality, it could be Kohli or it could be de Villiers, such is the command" #SAvPAK— Saj Sadiq (@Saj_PakPassion) December 26, 2018
Mitchell Marsh’s return to the Australia Test outfit did not go according to plan with the all-rounder being booed on a couple of occasions by the packed Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) ground in the Boxing Day Test against India.
The partisan crowd made their displeasure over the dropping of local Victoria star Peter Handscomb evident as they rang out the boos for his Western Australia replacement. Following a string of poor scores in the Adelaide and Perth Tests, Handscomb had been dropped to make way for Marsh.
Loud jeers greeted the younger Marsh sibling both times he was brought on as a bowling change by skipper Tim Paine on day one of the Boxing Day Test.
The all-rounder had been out of favour previously after a disappointing series against Pakistan in the UAE where he could muster only 30 runs with the bat in the two Tests.
The behaviour of the Melbourne home crowd did not sit too well with Marsh’s team-mate Travis Head who termed it as ‘pretty poor’.
Mitchell Marsh getting booed as he comes into the attack.— Daniel Cherny 📰 (@DanielCherny) December 26, 2018
“I don’t think it’s great. Obviously we’ve seen it with Kohli (Virat) as well but for Mitch, who worked his bum off today, I thought he bowled exceptionally well,” Head stated after the day’s play.
“I thought he created pressure in tough conditions and fought really hard. I don’t think any Australian cricketer in Australia deserves to be booed.
“I understand the Victorian crowd, Petey (Handscomb) obviously missing out, but I think it’s pretty poor for Mitchy to cop that.”
Marsh ended the day as the most economical of Australia’s bowlers as India reached 215-2 in their first innings at stumps. The all-rounder bowled 15 overs in total on Wednesday, conceding only 23 runs with the help of three maidens.
Head lauded the all-rounder’s character in the face of the ringing boos around the iconic stadium.
“I think Mitch is a character to get on with is. As he showed, he did his business, he did his work, he bowled exceptionally well, did the job that was needed for the team and that’s what Mitch has always done,” the Aussie batsman said.