Tenacious India seamers rewrite script
The first session of the second day had a bad old feeling for India. A movie seen before. A movie fresh in the mind.
In the first Test of their tour of Australia in 2011-12, India were 214 for 2 just before stumps on day two. Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid got two beauties either side of stumps, and India collapsed. India still came back in the match - they had Australia effectively at 78 for 4 in the second innings - but bowled poorly to Michael Hussey and Ricky Ponting. Never to come back in the series.
In the first Test of their tour of England, India troubled the hosts on day one but lost Zaheer Khan to injury. On the second day they had England at 62 for 5, but when they came back from lunch with a win still a remote possibility, India bowled Suresh Raina instead of an on-fire Ishant Sharma, and another big moment was lost. Two more big moments were lost in the next Test - the Stuart Broad-Graeme Swann partnership, and then a collapse with a big first-innings lead in sight. It all spiralled out of control after that.
On both tours, with those big moments lost, India didn't have the intensity, at times the fitness, and at others the skill, to come back. Days in the field became longer, batting innings passed in a blink of the eye, and India just kept running on the treadmill of defeat. After giving a good account of themselves on the first day - better than was expected but only good enough to keep the match in balance - India collapsed to a mix of good bowling and meek batting, in Zaheer's case. Zaheer came back well with the ball, almost had who is believed to be his bunny, Graeme Smith, but the catch was dropped. When they went into tea, India had only 162 runs in the bank, and were looking at a long South Africa batting line-up.
It was natural to be put in mind of the previous two tours. The two big moments were lost. Except that this time the 118 for 1 at tea did disservice to how well India had bowled. They had learned the lesson from the South Africa quicks, who bowled too short on day one and got all the wickets with fuller lengths on day two. Just that they had been unlucky at times. It would be a test of character, and also skill, to come back in the final session and keep the game alive.
The big difference here was that India still had a fit and intense three-man pace attack - the spinner not required so far might play a part in the final innings - and a lively pitch to work with. The last time Zaheer bowled more than 20 overs in a day's play was at MCG in 2010, when India lost those big moments. Even then his fitness and intensity were not quite in the clear. Today, after India had batted for more than an hour at the start of the day, Zaheer sent down 22 overs, the last as intense as the first, despite all the plays and misses and the drop catch. He was finally rewarded with Smith's wicket, 49 runs later than he should have been.
The rudder this attack badly needed had been provided by this new and fit Zaheer. He was not that great in the field, but the man has to pace himself. Zaheer has earned the right to such small allowances in an imperfect attack. Ishant and Mohammed Shami were no less intense. They kept bowling up, and not just floating it. There was a lot of emphasis on "right areas" in press conferences from India, but South African pitches need more. The more came from them. It took tenacity to keep at it despite being denied the results in the middle sessions. As it happens with Ishant, albeit not frequently enough, once he gets on a roll, things keep falling in place. Hashim Amla and Jacques Kallis in two balls is as good as it gets in Test cricket. Shami delivered JP Duminy and AB de Villiers in the same over. India had come back from having lost the big moment. Those horrible memories were now being put back in the filing drawer.
It was not just the intensity. There was skill involved. On an outfield that had taken a lot of rain - fielders were slipping at its edge - India did something South Africa couldn't: reverse the ball. That added to the doubt for the batsmen. The ball was maintained superbly. The series was alive. This was reassurance that Virat Kohli's hundred on day one was not just a flicker. Even when Vernon Philander and Faf du Plessis got into a partnership, the field didn't spread out as was the case on those two previous two tours. The bowlers' intensity and fitness played a big part in it as did the fact that the pitch was offering some movement even with a 60-over-old ball.
That catch dropped by Rohit Sharma might still prove to be a big moment lost. Through that 67-run partnership between Philander and du Plessis, India will know beating South Africa - a 13-man team through the all-round roles of Kallis and de Villiers - in a Test is an incredibly difficult task. An extra batsman or an extra bowler pop out of nowhere to make you fight that extra fight. However, India have already not only exceeded expectations, they have done more than their bit to make this a classical Test.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo