JOHANNESBURG - India start the fifth day, with their hopes of creating history teetering.
They require another 252 runs to win this second Test, to achieve a target that’s higher than any which has been successfully chased here, and tie the series, on a surface their batsmen cannot trust.
An awful lot has been said of the surface. Publicly the South Africans, through fast bowlers, Morne Morkel and Lungi Ngidi have expressed surprise at how uncharacteristically it has played. It’s slower than normal - slower than the South Africans want it - the bounce - of the steepling kind - isn’t there consistently and there’s a little too much in it for the spinners.
The toss was very important because batting first was the key to laying a foundation. South Africa didn’t do that as well as they should have, and so it meant they’ve had to scrap, to get their noses in front.
However for all the concerns about the pitch, there’s no doubt, it’s created a gripping spectacle. These are two very closely matched teams and on a lively surface - unusually so in that case - in Cape Town they threw a stack of haymakers at each other, before the outcome was settled.
This pitch has created a contest where a few more jabs have had to be thrown
It felt like a laborious affair between lunch and tea on Tuesday as South Africa scratched out 57 runs in 27 overs, with the wicket of Vernon Philander the result of batting error and that of Keshav Maharaj down to temptation.
India bowled wicket-to-wicket, employing a sub-continental strategy on a pitch with some sub-continental characteristics. It’s the disconcertingly low bounce that plays tricks on the minds, and Faf du Plessis’ ploy to stay out there batting as long as possible and let the surface wear out even more proved beneficial.
The South African captain received a standing ovation from coach Ottis Gibson and his teammates for an innings of 48 that lasted three and three-quarter hours, in which there was little dazzling stroke-play but plenty of hard graft.
Having spent that amount of time batting on it he knew just how difficult it was to score and to even survive.
Enter Ngidi and Rabada
The target set at 287, and with two hours left to play, Du Plessis knew a couple of wickets would send shivers down the opposition spine. The wicket of Virat Kohli, who’s first innings knock of 153, had been the defining performance of the match so far, would be a veritable quake.
Like batsmen, bowlers too have to work hard to gain success here. But knowing there are areas on the surface from which they can get the unplayable to occur will spur them on.
Kagiso Rabada produced the first such moment to Murali Vijay and then Lungi Ngidi almost blew the roof off the Grandstand when he dismissed the Indian captain.
The only reason Kohli referred it to the television official, was in the vain hope that the young quick bowler had over-stepped the front line - Ngidi’s toe barely touched it.
While Cheteshwar Pujara is still out there India will remain hopeful. Parthiv Patel showed plenty of guts on the fourth evening, surviving a bruising examination from Ngidi.
Rohit Sharma has an opportunity to justify the selectors’ faith in him as a Test player, Hardik Pandya has shown he is capable of match-changing performances and Ravi Ashwin is a determined performer who puts a high price on his wicket.
There is plenty left in the last day of what has been an intriguing encounter. South Africa have got India’s main man, but such is the spirit he’s instilled in his squad and the desire with which he wants them all to play, that they’ll still believe an historic outcome is possible.