Third day of a Test that could prove to be a historic decider, series on the line, careers on the line…what could you expect from a day like that? Thursday at Newlands delivered beyond expectations: Rishabh Pant with a cyclone of a century, his skipper Virat Kohli hunkering down on the other end like he has never done before, a South African pace quartet bowling with venom, a stunning catch, a barely-there target, a team hissing with aggression after a controversial DRS decision.
Despite the Pant special—he hit an unbeaten 139-ball 100 studded with four sixes and six fours in a 94-run partnership with Kohli, India could only set South Africa a target of 212, which the hosts had reduced to 111 for the loss of two wickets by the end of the day.
Apart from Pant and Kohli, the Indian batting suffered a collapse, faced with awkward deliveries flying in from the South African quicks. Yet again, Indian batters have left their tireless pacers with a near-miraculous task of trying to pull off a victory and with it, India’s first ever series win in South Africa, on Day 4.
IND vs SA: 193 minutes of the Kohli school of grit
South Africa lost their captain—and the architect of the 2nd Test victory—Dean Elgar, late in the day, but still looked well set to deny India, having coasted to 101/2 at stumps.
Mohammed Shami got the back of Aiden Markram on 16 with a swinging delivery, but other than that, India could not draw as many false strokes from the opposing batters, with the ever-impressive Keegan Petersen 48* (61) partnering Elgar for a 78-run 2nd wicket partnership. Elgar’s dismissal, getting a feather of an edge down leg side on 30 off Jasprit Bumrah would have lifted India’s mood slightly. A mood that had been greatly soured an hour or so earlier when Elgar was kept in play as DRS overruled an lbw decision off Ashwin. The Indians, led by Kohli, went on a sledging spree, but also leaked 41 runs in just nine overs.
India wouldn’t have been in the contest at all but for the maverick batting talent of Pant. The southpaw had narrowly missed his hundreds at Brisbane and Sydney but both innings will be remembered for the naked counter-attacking brilliance they stood for.
In Cape Town, Pant managed to get to his ton. Even if he had been stranded again, his knock would still have found a place in the top shelf of blistering Test innings, as much for the part it played in keeping India’s hopes alive but also for how effortless Pant looked in adverse batting conditions. Every other batter, established or emerging, has found boundary-hitting difficult here.
When Pant came out to bat, the Indian change room had turned somber. Two of their middle-order anchors for many years –Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane were staring at an uncertain future. More importantly, their dismissals inside eight balls, in the early hours of the morning session, had reduced India to 58/4. There was a looming threat of another big collapse with Kohli only having Pant and the bowling all-rounders to come.
Initially, South Africa had focused all their energies on Kohli. But the Indian skipper had come with even greater defensive reserves than in the 1st innings, where he took 201 balls for his 79. This time he batted out 143 balls for his 29.
But his call to play second fiddle was dictated by Pant’s batting flow at the other end. His shot selection under scrutiny after being publicly tutored by the team management, Pant responded by choosing his moments and attacking only when he found his match-ups. His first two boundaries were a pull, then a cut against Kagiso Rabada. That’s when South Africa were all over India—those were calculated risks, because slashing square is his strong suit.
He showed the first real sign of aggression in the 34th over by dancing down the track to smash Duane Olivier for a powerful cover drive. India were 91/4. Wrong moment? Pant may have thought it through. All his recent dismissals away from home against quicks had come when they were bowling to him from over the wicket, taking the ball away. In his mind, he had the measure of Olivier, who was bowling around the wicket and not all that quick.
When Ngidi finally breached Kohli’s extreme focus, Pant took the liberty to go berserk, even as he rapidly begun running out of partners at the other end. Typically, the bat flew out of his hand at one point. But he got to his landmark not with a glory shot but by ambling for a single after playing a delivery to square leg, as the dressing room rose in unison to applaud a unique talent.