Vintage Test cricket
In these days of turbo-charged run rates, this was a throwback to another era, Test cricket's attritional age. On a pitch that played some tricks without ever crossing the border from challenging to spiteful, two teams determined to end the series victorious slugged it out like two weary boxers on sun-baked canvas.
India landed the initial blows, getting both overnight batsmen in quick succession, but South Africa's riposte revealed a very strong chin. Jacques Kallis and Ashwell Prince never dominated proceedings, and often struggled with the sharp turn, but they were focussed enough to put the loose deliveries away when presented with them. By his standards, Anil Kumble had an ordinary day, erring in both line and length as boundaries were leaked through midwicket and point, and his unease at an unfamiliar round-the-wicket line of attack was all too apparent at times.
For a while after lunch, Indian shoulders slumped, and were on the verge of drooping when Sachin Tendulkar offered up the prize wicket of Kallis. By that stage, the fielding was atrocious at worst, and indifferent at best. Time and again, players dived theatrically over the ball, doing little to stop its progress to the rope, and a couple of smart catches couldn't deflect attention from a pathetic display.
Having reestablished their grip on the game by adding the scalp of Herschelle Gibbs to those of Kallis and Prince, India would have looked to Kumble for a quick mop-up job. Unfortunately, South Africa had batsmen of the quality of Mark Boucher and Shaun Pollock and No.7 and 8, and a 69-run partnership raised the uncomfortable spectre of South Africa taking the lead.
But in keeping with a day when fortunes ebbed and flowed frequently, there was to be one final and perhaps decisive twist. Pollock went after a Zaheer Khan delivery that slanted across him, and Boucher nibbled at one from Munaf Patel. Suddenly, 350 for 6 had become 372 all out, leaving India with a 41-run cushion that was as unexpected as it was welcome.
Through it all, Dravid kept mixing and matching in search of elusive breakthroughs. It wasn't the easiest task given that his pace bowlers could do little more than keep down the runs. Sreesanth was outstanding in his opening spell, while Munaf went without luck in a gripping passage of play against Prince. Zaheer Khan was the disappointment, combining the odd beauty with loose offerings that were spanked to the fence. But after such a strong showing all tour, he was perhaps due an off day.
By the time they wrapped things up, the Indians looked spent. Sreesanth had landed awkwardly on his ankle during his spell with the second new ball, and though Dravid said later that it was nothing that some ice and rest couldn't solve, it remains to be seen how the workload of the past three weeks will affect his performance in the final innings of the series. And after wheeling away for nearly 43 overs, Kumble will welcome the shade of the dressing room more than most.
The 41-run lead could yet be decisive on a pitch where variable bounce and sharp turn will encourage pace bowler and spinner alike. What South Africa's strong riposte has done though is leave the onus on the Indians to push for a result. If they see off the new ball, and that's been a big if all tour, they'll need to bat at a fair clip in order to set a challenging target. If they get bogged down, South Africa may yet find an avenue back into the contest. Day four could be just as gripping as its predecessor.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo