South Africa would not have wanted to lose the toss, certainly not on this Nagpur pitch. It meant that Hashim Amla and his team, just like in the previous two Tests, would have to play catch-up or at least be resigned to that fact in the back of their minds, with the pitch behaving as if a game had been in progress for three days now.
It wouldn’t have been foolish to suggest that South Africa would have been relying more on spin to pick up wickets rather than pace. The pacers would have had to rely on the doubts caused by uneven bounce or reverse swing to pick up wickets. As Morne Morkel showed, South Africa’s main weapon was still pace, even on a dust bowl. He was instrumental in the period of play when India lost four wickets for 29 runs but him walking off later in the innings will be a cause of huge concern for the injury-hit visitors.
Morkel started with zest early in the morning but the balls were keeping low even when banged short, meaning South Africa’s pacers needed a change of tact to produce wickets. He found reverse swing later on to produce the breakthroughs, but India still managed to eke out a solid first innings total thanks to useful contributions from mainly Murali Vijay, Wriddhiman Saha and Ravindra Jadeja. The former gave India a good base while the latter two resurrected them after a collapse.
Earlier in the day, Amla had to resort to spin after just eight overs. The pitch was already turning big with puffs of dust blowing up when the ball landed. It was a made-to-order pitch that had been delivered perfectly for India, who went in with three spinners and the extra batsman in Rohit Sharma, a deviance from Virat Kohli’s preferred strategy of five bowlers. But soon into the first hour on Wednesday (November 25), the rationale behind the move was evident. The extra batsman added some cushion while taking twenty wickets on this pitch was a straightforward ask off the spinners.
Dean Elgar’s left-arm spin was used as an attacking option here by Amla as the game shifted to a distinctly sub-continent mood. When Shikhar Dhawan tried a loft against Elgar, he only managed to spoon it back to the bowler. South Africa could not afford to look beyond spin after that moment. Tahir was brought on soon after the dismissal of Dhawan but the leggie was an immediate disappointment.
One of the reasons cited for delaying Tahir was his tendency to concede runs in boundaries – a terrible prospect in a game that had all the signs of being a low-scorer, thanks to the pitch. He lived up to that reputation, conceding two against Pujara in just his second over, a trend that continued with his full tosses even later in the day. He was replaced by Morkel, a move that provided an unexpected break. Vijay, who seemed to have understood what was needed, was batting on 40 when he missed a delivery that straightened a touch. Morkel was rewarded for attacking the stumps.
It was the impetus that the pacer needed. Morne’s reverse swing in the second session was revelatory. He, along with offie Simon Harmer, picked four wickets in the afternoon session. Harmer, attacking from round the stumps, finally got one to turn from outside off stump to trap Pujara plumb in front, Morkel broke through Rahane’s prod with a big in-dipper and later set-up Kohli to have him poking out and edging. India’s extra batsman, Rohit Sharma, edged an off-break onto his pads to be caught.
The demons on the pitch were finally impacting the scorecard. It also put India’s 85 for just two wickets in the first session into perspective. South Africa needed a session a long time in a game that made rapid progress – to gauge the nature of the wicket and employ tactics suited to it.
The next partnership of 48 for the 7th wicket between Saha and Jadeja shifted the momentum once again. A dogged Saha was batting in stark contrast to Jadeja, who had six fours in his knock. Both knocks were invaluable in the context of the game and with the tail wagging, India managed to get to a respectable 215 the highest team total in the series.
When it was time for them to bowl, the now predictable ‘c Rahane b Ashwin’ appeared in just the fourth over. Going in with one pacer, India had made no bones about their tactics and Stiaan van Zyl’s half-forward poke resulted in a straightforward catch to slip. Ashwin had delivered once again. The other spin-twin, Jadeja, darted one past the night-watchman Tahir soon after as India ended with their noses ahead. The script hasn’t changed unless South Africa’s batsmen fight it out tomorrow.