South Africa's two moments of brilliance
Amid all the furore surrounding Sachin Tendulkar's 50th Test century, there were two moments of magic from South Africa's bowlers that meant their team was on the brink of victory at the end of the fourth day in Centurion: the extra bounce and slight away movement from Morne Morkel that got a faint edge off Rahul Dravid's bat and the bullet of a ball that MS Dhoni tried to fend off Dale Steyn. Those were the two defining moments of South Africa's performance in the field on Sunday.
The strategic military-style operation they employed during India's first innings was not going to work in the second. The pitch simply didn't have the same juice in it and could not provide the same assistance. Even though the day's play started in overcast conditions, which helped seam movement, it didn't last longer than 20 minutes. Then, the skies cleared, the heat set in and the pitch baked, presenting the South Africa bowlers with testing conditions on which to knock over the remaining India batsmen.
Paul Harris, South Africa's lone spinner, said they were aware the conditions were not going to be too helpful. "It's got a lot slower. There wasn't much of that tennis ball bounce we saw on the first day," he said at the end-of-day press conference. That meant South Africa had to bowl on a flatter track, similar to the one the India bowlers toiled on during the South Africa innings. "We expected it to be a hard day, and that's what it was. It was proper Test cricket. We had to work for our wickets." It was how the hard work was executed that displayed the difference in class between the two teams' bowling attacks.
Lonwabo Tsotsobe and Morkel started the fourth day by peppering the nightwatchman Ishant Sharma with short balls. When Morkel threw in a full delivery, Sharma got a leading edge back to him and would have been out if Morkel hadn't overstepped. Despite their attacking intent, there was no early reward for the South Africa bowlers and it was up to Dale Steyn and Jacques Kallis to vary the lengths a little more.
Morkel returned for his second spell with his tactical cap more firmly on and it took just ten balls for him to cash in. He gave Dravid two short balls, one on a length, and then a shorter one that kept low. The next one was perfect: on a length, extra bounce; a real effort-ball from Morkel, and the faint edge to wicketkeeper Mark Boucher removed the man that could easily have hung around all day and probably all of the fifth day too.
South Africa continued to attack in the morning session and Tsotsobe was rewarded for his persistence when Laxman chased a full ball. All four of the seamers had nabbed a wicket by lunch, with Kallis claiming the scalp of Suresh Raina who played an unnecessarily awful shot to be caught at slip.
There's a phrase in Afrikaans that says "Maagies vol, oogies toe (bellies full, eyes closed)," and that describes South Africa after lunch. Harris agreed they bowled more conservatively after the break but also said Sachin Tendulkar and Dhoni had switched mindsets by then. "Maybe we didn't bowl as well, but India came out and played with more intensity after lunch."
South Africa might be disappointed with their use of the second new ball. It arrived two overs after lunch and in the first nine overs it was used, Steyn was hit for two fours in an over and Morkel and Kallis, three each. Tendulkar and Dhoni were on the attack and South Africa went back to a familiar, containing plan. Harris was tossed the ball when it was nine overs old, and bowled an economical spell which gave his team time to put things back into perspective.
An unsuccessful second session and first hour of the third session saw Tendulkar and Dhoni threaten to erase the deficit completely and even pull off a great escape, and Harris said Dhoni, in particular, took away some of South Africa's channels of attack with his aggressive play.
Another moment of pure awesomeness was needed. Dale Steyn wrestled the advantage away from India when he returned for a spell that saw him rely on sheer pace. He hit the 145kph mark twice in his first two overs and then again in the third. It was in that over, that he got a short ball to climb on Dhoni and trap him in an awkward position. All Dhoni could do was hang his bat out and Boucher was on hand to take the catch.
Harris is playing a shadow role again, but it's an important one. He removed Harbhajan Singh late in the day and was getting the ball to turn to Sreesanth at the end. He picked up his 100th wicket in the match, that of Virender Sehwag and is "pretty stoked about it." His focus is not on his own game, but on South Africa "cleaning up tomorrow." It will only take two more moments of magic for them to do that.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent