Australia's persistence and South Africa's undue haste conspired to round up the hosts for 266. Having advanced as far as 241 for 4, South Africa lost 4 for 4 to Nathan Lyon and Peter Siddle in a frenzied 18-ball passage after tea. Australia's captain Michael Clarke nipped out the final two wickets in fading light that prevented the full quota of overs from being bowled.
Jacques Kallis' flighty and fleeting 54 had set the rhythm of the innings on a friendly pitch, its pace and impulsive shot-selection maintained by AB de Villiers and Ashwell Prince. In the final session Prince, in particular, looked like he could be out any ball, and ultimately it was his airy drive to mid on that started the rush of wickets.
Though Lyon and Siddle took the spoils to a series of thoughtless strokes, Pat Cummins also deserved considerable credit for the quality of his bowling on debut, which reaped the wicket of Hashim Amla and was comfortably the most economical of any Australian paceman. He also claimed a ripping catch to account for de Villiers.
Concerns about Shane Watson's fitness were partially assuaged by his return to the field following an earlier hamstring complaint, but he did not move from first slip and it remains to be seen whether he can bowl again in this match.
Watson had taken the second wicket to fall, that of Jacques Rudolph, and his continued inconvenience will affect Australia's bowling options. It will also place more burden of performance on the 18-year-old Cummins, who became Australia's second youngest Test debutant after Ian Craig, having played only three first-class matches, and was included in this game at the expense of an injured Ryan Harris.
Mitchell Johnson bowled better than in Cape Town, particularly in his first spell, but was still expensive as he sought the rhythm and swing of 2009.
Having won the toss, Graeme Smith and Rudolph walked to the middle to face Johnson and Cummins, who each gained some movement and bounce. Johnson was rewarded for a decent line when Smith fenced at a delivery that seamed away slightly and offered a catch to Clarke at second slip.
Rudolph offered his bat to plenty of deliveries outside the off stump, sometimes driving crisply, others probing uncertainly, and Cummins had one delivery prancing off the splice of the bat and eluding Michael Hussey in the gully.
Cummins' first spell in Tests was of a high standard, affording speed, bounce and enough movement, and though he did not take a wicket it was in its way as heartening a passage of cricket for Australia as Clarke's hundred had been on day one at Newlands.
At the other end, Amla was centimetres away from falling lbw to Johnson when one straightened enough in the air to clip off stump but not strike it flush - meaning Amla eluded Clarke's DRS referral. Watson replaced Johnson, and soon had a flat-footed Rudolph touching an angled delivery on its way through to Brad Haddin.
Kallis' arrival brought a flurry of boundaries as Australia pitched up in search of swing and outside edges, but the tourists were less perturbed by that than the sight of Watson wincing and walking off before the completion of his fourth over.
Johnson resumed bowling in Watson's stead, twice striking Amla on the forearm, and Kallis was only reprieved from an lbw decision in the shadows of the break by a DRS referral that revealed a meaty inside edge. However driven runs continued to accrue, Lyon taken for 12 runs in the final over of the session, and the interval arrived with plenty of worries for the tourists.
Australia's full bowling continued to offer opportunities for Kallis to drive on resumption, and he went to his half-century in only 37 balls with a six flicked over fine leg. But his uncharacteristic speed brought greater risk, and in the same over he levered Siddle to midwicket in search of another boundary.
Amla's more sedate stay was soon ended, flashing hard at Cummins to allow Ponting to hold a fine snare at slip. The wickets slid South Africa to 129 for 4 and brought Lyon's return to the attack, but de Villiers and Prince were soon scoring almost as freely as Kallis had done.
This was cricket of unbridled aggression on both sides, and as many of the hosts' runs were found behind the wicket as in front as the edge of the bat was found but did not go to hand. One spell of three overs for one run was broken by three consecutive boundaries from Siddle, and de Villiers went past 50 shortly before the interval.
At this point the hosts could easily have settled in, tired the bowlers and ground out the runs and overs that would break Australia's resistance. Instead, after a farcical delay of some 15 minutes when a mechanical sight-screen failed, Prince and de Villiers carried on as if they were running out of overs.
Prince has been dismissed many times by quality spin bowlers across his career, a level to which Lyon still aspires, and the bowler was only partly responsible for a dismissal that saw the batsman smear distastefully to mid on.
Next over de Villiers pulled at a Siddle delivery he should have been upper-cutting or leaving, and Cummins ran breathlessly from mid-off to hold a sublime catch. Lyon was gaining a little turn, and Vernon Philander's back foot shuffle resulted in the clearest of lbws.
Mark Boucher hooked unwisely a few balls later and Lyon pouched the chance running around from fine leg, to leave South Africa's tail in occupation under increasingly glum skies. Concerns about the light had Michael Clarke bring himself on, and Morne Morkel snicked simply to slip.
Dale Steyn connected with one mighty blow, but Imran Tahir squeezed Clarke to short leg, concluding an innings that promised so much more for South Africa than it eventually delivered.