The Proteas were 118 runs ahead and still had eight second-innings wickets in hand at stumps on day three at Centurion.
The Proteas failed to contain the white-hot Virat Kohli during the initial stages of day three. They suffered two setbacks at the start of their second innings, and were somewhat fortunate to survive to the close of play with only two wickets down.
All that said, the hosts will head into day four in a strong position. AB de Villiers and Dean Elgar have set the platform for what should be a competitive total in challenging conditions. The pitch is expected to deteriorate on days four and five, and the side batting last may be hard-pressed to chase down a target in excess of 250.
Yet India have good cause to believe that a series-levelling win is still possible. Kohli took the fight to the South African bowlers late on day two. He was in sublime touch early on day three, taking fewer than 30 minutes to reach his 21st Test century. After lunch, he powered his way to 153 and ultimately boosted India to 307.
Thanks to the superhuman efforts of Kohli – and to a lesser extent, Ravi Ashwin (38), and Ishant Sharma (3), who both provided good support toward the end of the India innings – the visitors finished just 28 runs short of South Africa’s first-innings total.
They carried that momentum into the Proteas’ second innings when Jasprit Bumrah trapped Aiden Markram and then Hashim Amla lbw. Both deliveries kept low, and neither Markram nor Amla bothered to ask for a review. At 3-2, India appeared to be on the verge of taking control.
Elgar struggled during those initial overs. The left-handed batsman was fortunate that an edged delivery bounced wide of a fielder. An unsuccessful attempt to hit Ashwin over the top for four also fell safe.
De Villiers, like Kohli, appeared comfortable at the crease. The Proteas No 4 played positively from the outset. This approach rubbed off on Elgar, and the hosts managed to progress to tea in a stronger position at 60-2.
It didn’t get any easier after the break, though. An hour of play was lost after a heavy shower. When play resumed, Elgar and De Villiers were asked to deal with some variable bounce.
Bumrah thought that he had the breakthrough when he got the ball to spit off the surface and catch Elgar’s glove. Luck was with South Africa again, though, as the ball bisected the wicketkeeper and Cheteshwar Pujara in the slips.
The umpires decided to take the players off the field due to bad lighting after that. After coming together with the score on 3-2, Elgar and De Villiers – who notched up his 50 shortly before the close – had clubbed together for a crucial 87-run partnership.
South Africa failed to contain Kohli early on day three. In the end, the India captain ran out of partners and was forced to swing for the fences.
De Villiers will take guard in very different conditions on day four. If India allow South Africa’s premier batsman to settle, though, they will regret it.
De Villiers could well bat India out of this contest and steer the Proteas towards a series-clinching win. Two or three quick wickets, however, and India will believe that victory is still possible.
SA 335 (1st innings) – Aiden Markram 94, Hashim Amla 82, Ravi Ashwin 4-113, Ishant Sharma 3-46
India 307 (1st innings) – Virat Kohli 153, Murali Vijay 46, Morne Morkel 4-60, Vernon Philander 1-46
SA 90-2 (2nd innings) –AB de Villiers 50 not out, Dean Elgar 36 not out, Jasprit Bumrah 2-30
South Africa lead by 118 runs
Photo: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix