Zaheer Khan smiled wryly after beating Graeme Smith outside the off-stump, R Ashwin sported a bemused look after deceiving Smith with a carom ball, and those images conveyed how desperately India were searching for wickets and victory.
Having put on board 421 runs in their second innings to set South Africa a daunting target of 458 on the fourth day of the first Test, the Indians encountered stubborn Smith and Alviro Petersen, who added 108 runs for the first wicket in little over two hours as South Africa ended a hard-battled Saturday at 138 for two. They still need 320 runs to win this Test and preserve a strong home record of losing just three matches in the last four years.
Smith never looked comfortable against either Zaheer or Ashwin, and the left-arm pacer could have had wicket of the Proteas skipper twice. A cleverly concealed slower ball that was propelled with his knuckles almost carried Smith’s prod to Virat Kohli at backward square leg, but the Delhiite failed to hold on to a rather tough chance. Soon, another slower ball elicited a leading edge, but narrowly eluded a jumping Zaheer’s hands.
Though Smith looked ugly out there, he gave company to a fluent Petersen, who compiled an unbeaten 76 to lead South Africa’s mini fightback.
None of the Indian bowlers really managed to trouble Petersen for a sustained period, despite bowling a fine length for most part of the day. The much-desired breakthrough came when Ajinkya Rahane’s direct throw from mid-on caught Smith short of the crease for 44.
Indians soon had another massive moment of joy when Hashim Amla was jettisoned in a freakish manner. An impeccable judge of line and owner of tight defence, Amla chose to duck below a Shami bouncer but the ball hardly rose as much as he expected, shattering the stumps. It was a moment of sheer fortune, but Indians would take it gladly knowing Amla’s penchant for big runs and ability to occupy the crease. That’s all India could manage as Petersen and Faf Du Plessis saw through the remaining eight overs under fading light that prompted the umpires to ask the visitors to operate with slower bowlers -- a decision that also saw skipper MS Dhoni turning his arm.
Earlier, the morning session started with the expectations of India going for some quick runs and an early declaration. Pujara, who notched up another 150-plus score, carved Imran Tahir for a four in the first over itself, indicating India’s intention for a brisk passage of play.
But it wasn’t to be so. South Africa took new ball in the first available opportunity, and that put breaks on the two overnight batsmen – Pujara and Kohli. Dale Steyn showed a lot more purpose than the previous day, and Vernon Philander was on target as he has been for a large part of this Test.
It took nearly seven more overs for Indians to break the manacles when Pujara cut Steyn, who managed his worst ever figure in Tests (0-104 in 30 overs) for two fours in the 85th over, and from that point runs came in a steady trickle but not as fast as India would have liked.
Pujara returned to the hut immediately after crossing 150, edging Jacques Kallis to AB de Villiers behind the stumps, also ending a game-turning, massive 222-run alliance. The focus then shifted to Kohli, who by then had moved sedately to the 90s, and the possibility of him getting a second successive hundred in the match. There was nothing in the morning to suggest that he wouldn’t reach that rare landmark, but an attempt to cut Jean Paul Duminy snapped those desires, a thick edge nestling in the hands of De Villiers. Kohli thwacked on his helmet with the bat as he walked back to the pavilion, but by then India’s overall lead had gone past the 350-run mark.
Dhoni, and Zaheer, who hammered the first six of the match, provided some entertainment with a few beefy blows that took India past the 400-run mark. The batsmen had set up the game nicely and now it’s the turn of the bowlers to apply the finishing touches.