Test of character awaits after testing day
India can't have gone into the fourth day thinking of a win. Their plan would have been to delay South Africa's attainment of a sizeable lead as much as possible. The Ravindra Jadeja threat in South Africa's minds would have helped India. It had showed in how the hosts didn't push for quick runs towards the end of the third day. However, there were two ways of going about it.
The first was to actively try to take wickets. The second was to bowl with an old and soft ball for as long as they could because it would be hard to score off on a slow and slightly two-paced pitch. There was no right or wrong decision; it was a matter of having a feel of the conditions, the fitness and the intensity of the quicker bowlers, who would have to bowl with the new ball, and how much threat the possibility quick runs posed.
As it turned out, India bowled with the old ball until they were literally not allowed to use it anymore. It was an extreme step, but MS Dhoni must have felt that was the way to go. For 146 overs, India went on with a scuffed-up ball that did almost nothing for the bowlers, except not travelling off the bat.
You wonder if India thought they should have done otherwise when they saw Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander do things with the new ball, but you also wonder how much the workload of the fast bowlers at the Wanderers played in this decision. They came into this Test having had only three days' recovery, saw India bat first and weather delay their turn a bit, but the intensity - especially from Zaheer Khan, from whom you could not snatch the ball at Wanderers - was visibly lower.
When Graeme Smith was asked before the second Test whether South Africa would look to bat first to put the India bowlers back on the field as soon as possible, he didn't sound too desperate to do that because he expected the tired legs to show up at some point in the Test. "I think that workload will be in their legs somewhere in the Test match," Smith said. "I think especially if we can get a good partnership somewhere in our top order."
The three India quicks bowled 86 overs at Kingsmead for 315 runs and three wickets, two of which were lower-order batsmen who had already done the damage. It wasn't easy. Durban has been hot and humid when it isn't raining, and the wicket is not as helpful as the one at Wanderers, but it still has something in it, especially as it deteriorates.
Most of India's work was done by the unwavering Jadeja. He bowled 58.2 overs, a rarity for a spinner in South Africa. No spinner has bowled more than 50 in an innings here in the last seven years. Jadeja was difficult to get away even when South Africa showed more intent on the fourth day. As the ball grew older, though, Jadeja got less and less bite from the pitch. The big debate around the new ball was whether India should have taken it as soon as a wicket fell, to not allow the new batsman time to settle in.
Robin Peterson, who teed off for 61 off 52, said the old ball was much more difficult to get away, and that all the new ball did was give the quicks some extra bounce, but not much in terms of sideways movement. It probably didn't make too much of a difference to India. Had they taken the new ball as soon as Faf du Plessis came in, they might have taken a wicket or two and slowed South Africa down. The new ball might also have flown to all parts, and they might have been looking at a deficit of 200 as opposed to the eventual 166.
The difference, though, was in how the South Africa quicks bowled with the new ball. They were clearly fitter and more intense. The two wickets taken before stumps would have buoyed South Africa, and India now need a good third innings, after their hard work on both their previous tours was undone by ordinary third innings' efforts. They would hate to lose the series after having done so well in Johannesburg and having got a pitch in Durban that arguably suited them more than the hosts.
It will be a tough examination on the final day should rain not intervene. It is not just about batting time, even runs will come into the picture if they come close to wiping off the deficit. Their two best batsmen are at the wicket. It won't be a bad call to promote Ajinkya Rahane, who can bat time, ahead of Rohit Sharma, who must be low on confidence and has shown previously his ability to bat with the tail. The tail, though, is almost non-existent on the evidence of the first innings. It will be a test of character for this young team should there be a full day's play on Monday.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo