Sport Cricket Warner blazes, Clarke courageous, Australia on top
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Warner blazes, Clarke courageous, Australia on top

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A captain looking to end a dry spell with the bat, a crucial Test series in the balance and a six-foot-eight monster sending down bouncer after brutal bouncer.

The stage was set for Michael Clarke to shine on day one of the series-decider against South Africa in Cape Town and, even after David Warner’s hard-to-follow knock of 135, he starred as Australia reached 3-331 at stumps.

Unlike most of the many memorable innings in Clarke’s 105-Test career, Saturday’s unbeaten 92 was all about grunt instead of class.

Facing the same short-pitched strategy that England bombarded him with in the Ashes, Clarke neither attacked nor defended Morne Morkel in the second session.

You’re going to have to keep hitting me until I can’t stand up.

Instead, like a boxer on the ropes, he weathered blows to the jaw, arm and fingers as a sold-out Newlands bayed for blood and team doctor Peter Brukner made regular trips to the middle.

“It would have been easy to play a shot to try and stop that, but he hung in there,” team consultant Shane Warne said of the stoic skipper.

“(His attitude was) you know what, over my dead body. You’re going to have to keep hitting me until I can’t stand up.”

Morkel almost did when a ball popped up off Clarke’s gloves and went within a whisker of dislodging the bails.

“He’s got four, maybe five ice packs on … he’s in a bit of pain, a bit of agony,” Warne said.

But by the end of play Clarke had formed a 114-run unbeaten stand with Steve Smith (50 not out) and put Australia on track to bat the Proteas out of the contest.

Dale Steyn left the field in the 41st over with a hamstring injury and may not return to bowl, while the absence of a front-line spinner further stacks the deck against the hosts.

“He’s going to have a little fitness test tomorrow … there’s still hope,” South Africa bowling coach Allan Donald said of Steyn.

“If you lose your gun bowler, which is Dale Steyn, then the rest are going to have to step up. We’ve done that on numerous occasions.”

They didn’t on Saturday, with just one wicket falling in each session.

The tourists are well placed to record a victory that would inflict world No.1 South Africa’s first Test series loss since 2009.

Clarke won the toss for the first time this series and it paid big dividends as Australia made their brightest start to an overseas Test with the bat since rocketing to 3-320 at Barbados in May, 2003.

Warner continued the form of his life, exorcising the side’s Newlands nightmares in a tick over half an hour.

Australia needed 43 balls to reach a total of 0-47, the same number of runs they were skittled for in the second innings of the 2011 Test at the same venue.

Warner’s tour average is 79.6, having benefited from five dropped catches spread across the past two Tests.

But on Saturday there were no lives as he charged toward a seventh Test ton in 104 balls.