India v South Africa, 3rd Test, Nagpur, 2nd day November 26, 2015

South Africa struggling at end of 20-wicket day

South Africa 79 (Ashwin 5-32, Jadeja 4-33) and 32 for 2 need another 278 to beat India 215 (Vijay 40, Harmer 4-78, Morkel 3-35) and 173 (Dhawan 39, Tahir 5-38)
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details

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On a pitch that turned batting into a lottery, South Africa failed to buy their ticket. This might read odd, but their bowlers bowled poorly to let India score 173 after they let the hosts get away to 215 in the first innings. In between, South Africa's batsmen were brought face to face with the true horror of batting on this pitch, and were bowled out for 79 in the face of relentless accuracy from R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, the lowest Test total against India. The visitors were left needing 278 runs with eight wickets in hand to preserve their nine-year-old unbeaten streak in away series.

Bowlers from both sides bowled many unplayable deliveries on a pitch that you needed a lot of luck to survive on, but South Africa bowled far too many of those outside the operational areas, taking the pitch out of the equation. Ashwin and Jadeja kept pegging away in those zones, and the pitch did the rest. South Africa's first innings lasted 33.1 overs, the longest wait for a wicket was 5.2 overs, and the highest score was JP Duniny's 35, and that included dollops of luck and application.

Modern batsmen draw a lot of flak for their lack of survival skills, but this might just have been a case of a crooked floor. Literally. Or even an out-of-shape ball. This pitch did not have mere turn: it had variable turn, variable bounce and variable pace. It is easy to say the batsmen did not get to the pitch of the ball often enough, but the batsmen were not reacting to balls coming across 22 yards, but to ones whose behaviour was impossible to predict until after they had pitched four or five yards from them. Just that knowledge was enough to mire feet in cement and minds in panic.

AB de Villiers' dismissal summed the pitch up. Jadeja absolutely fired one into the middle of the track around leg-stump line, but this hard cricket ball almost turned into a balloon upon pitching, took some of the surface with it, and turned and stayed slow to take the leading edge for an easy return catch. This was after one had skidded through after pitching in a similar area. The de Villiers' duck left South Africa 12 for 5, their lowest score at the fall of their fifth wicket. They had begun the day at 11 for 2.

It is quite possible that such a pitch and such a situation left India's fielders complacent too: had Virat Kohli, at gully, not dropped a sitter off JP Duminy in the 18th over, South Africa would have been reduced to 35 for 7, and would have been a fair shot to beat the lowest totals in India - 75 and 76 by India against West Indies and South Africa. Duminy went on to miraculously score 35, but he needed all the luck to go with his excellent batting. He danced down and hit Jadeja for two sixes, he swept, he defended like his life depended on it, but there were almost an equal number of edges falling safe. The one that reached a fielder was dropped.

India players react bemusedly when asked of the pitches, wondering what the fuss is all about, but really they should know why the pitch and not the cricket was the talking point. Ashwin, who is bowling beautifully, drifting the ball late, bowling a seam-up topspinner that swings back in to the left-hand batsmen, will have to contend with his 14th Test five-for being reduced to a footnote. He got Dean Elgar in the first over of the day with that seam-up delivery, drawing an inside edge from the cut. His other wickets were Hashim Amla (back of the bat on the sweep as the ball bounced, turned and came on slowly), Simon Harmer (not padding up properly to a carrom ball pitched well outside leg), and Morne Morkel (a return catch off a leading edge).

Jadeja was near unplayable given his pace, accuracy and flatter trajectory. Apart from de Villiers, he got Faf du Plessis (bowled when playing for turn) and Dane Vilas (bowled by a ball that turned past the outside edge) on the second morning. He was certain to get a five-for until Kohli took him off after 12 straight overs for 33 runs and four wickets. Amit Mishra, brought on to replace Jadeja, took Duminy out.

On a pitch where no batsman had passed 40, on a pitch that all a spinner needed to do was bowl fast and relatively accurately, the South Africa spinners bowled a lot of bad balls. Keeping with their strategy of using Imran Tahir for the tail, South Africa bowled Harmer and Duminy before the legspinner. They sent down long hops and overpitched deliveries, which Shikhar Dhawan and Cheteshwar Pujara took full toll of. Then, after a 44-run partnership between them, the pitch played up again. Pujara read an offbreak from Duminy, played for the turn, but the pitch took it straight on. This was just the one good ball in an expensive spell.

Tahir was brought on just before tea, and he responded with three wickets in three overs. Two of those were half-volleys that still had time to misbehave. Rohit Sharma scored an important 23, added 21 with Amit Mishra, and before they inevitably got out, took the target beyond the realm of one freak innings. South Africa were left needing at least two freak innings to win this.

The freak innings was not coming from Stiaan van Zyl, who fell to Ashwin for the fifth time in five innings. This one would have been the most disappointing of the lot: he and Elgar had put together South Africa's longest partnership of this match and their best opening stand of the series (17), but van Zyl drove an offbreak straight down the lap of short cover. The pitch had nothing to do with this dismissal. Just before stumps, nightwatchman Imran Tahir fell to a Mishra legbreak that didn't turn, becoming the 20th man to be dismissed on the day, equal highest in a day's play in India.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo