They almost got beaten at their own game. Almost got out-bowled by an attack they may have underestimated, did get out-batted (slightly) in the second innings, and were definitely out-fielded then. But only almost.
In home conditions, a largely 10-man South African side took the series lead, but not without flirting with conceding it to a visiting side, who genuinely believed they had what it took to mount a serious challenge. India thought their best chance would come at Newlands, where the worst drought in almost a century was supposed to make it more difficult to produce a pitch with live grass to facilitate pace, bounce and seam movement, rather than on the Highveld. But it rained in Cape Town, five days before the match and during it, and a surface described by both captains as "outstanding" and fair produced a compelling contest that could have gone either way and almost went India's.
When South Africa prepare pacy, bouncy, seaming surfaces for subcontinental opposition, they also prepare that for themselves. Their attack gets the advantage of helpful conditions and their line-up the disadvantage of having to compile innings on that strip. It may be more familiar to them, because they are more used to lively surfaces, but it doesn't mean it's any easier, especially when the other side has a bowling pack with variation, as India did.
South Africa had the toughest of the batting conditions, mostly by their own choice. They decided to bat first, when there was plenty to assist the pacemen, because they see themselves as a "team that is prepared to take risks to win games of cricket," according to captain Faf du Plessis, and then ended up batting again on the fourth morning, after the surface had sweated under covers for the entire third day.
The latter was unplanned and South Africa would probably have preferred to have been able to bat again over more of the second and third days, when traditionally it is best for run-scoring here, but the swift fall of wickets on the opening day and the weather meant their timing was thrown out and it showed. "This morning was probably the hardest to bat," du Plessis said. "It felt unplayable."
South Africa lost 8 for 65 under cloudy skies and in humid conditions and were bowled out for 130, which is obviously disappointing, but they were also dissatisfied with their first-innings total of 286. It was a victory to get there from 12 for 3 but the 114-run partnership between du Plessis and AB de Villiers suggested there was more on offer and du Plessis felt at least on their batsmen could have gone on to a more substantial score.
"We need to make sure if there are difficult periods, the guys that do get through can make a big impact on the game," he said. "The partnership was a good one but I felt we could have pushed further. It's about when you are in, being extremely hungry and making sure you can make a big play for the team."
De Villiers was the only home batsman who did that, in his first real Test since making his comeback from injury and a self-imposed sabbatical, and it underlined his quality. The tempo of his first-innings 65 changed the game while his second innings allowed South Africa to build a match-winning lead. De Villiers was not named Man of the Match - understandable given Vernon Philander's career-best showing - but he may as well have been. The debate surrounding his inclusion in the team seems to be completely nullified, especially because of the rest of the line-up's struggles.
Aiden Markram, who is also facing his first proper challenge since making his debut, was too late getting his bat down against a swinging delivery in the first innings and wanted to take on a slightly short ball despite being cramped for room in the second, Dean Elgar poked at one and then wafted at another and Hashim Amla, yes even Hashim Amla, played at deliveries he should have left, twice.
Amla's form is quickly becoming a concern. His three centuries last year came against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh at home and though he scored three half-centuries in eight innings in England, his increasing impatience is becoming a worry. There may be an argument for Temba Bavuma, who was left out because of team balance and in favour of de Villiers, to be brought back into the line-up given his tenacity, but that can only happen if South Africa revert to a seven-specialist-batsmen strategy. With Dale Steyn out of the series, it's possible but with spicier pitches expected upcountry, it may be difficult to decide between Bavuma and another seamer.
"There is so much value in both scenarios," du Plessis said, so ultimately the decision will depend on which of their suits South Africa's thinks is strongest. Do they want the extra bowler to be able to really run through India, as they did here? Or do they need an extra batsmen in case India run through them, as they did here?
It's a tricky set of questions to answer because if South Africa are to dissect where to fault themselves, there could find aspects of both areas of their game which need improvement. The shot selection with the bat has already been discussed but with the ball, there were times when the intensity trickled away. In the first innings, du Plessis spread the field when Hardik Pandya got going, in what turned out to be a damaging innings to South Africa, and in the second, the bowlers fell a little flat for a period when Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma threatened to take the game away. Philander's dismissal of Kohli sparked them back to life and they wrapped up the result later in the afternoon and though these are not serious criticisms, they are finer points South Africa will want to consider as the series goes on. The same goes for the spot of Keshav Maharaj, given that he seemed so surplus to requirements.
Of course, this time the attack was also robbed of one its members midway though the match and South Africa will not plan on that happening again either, which could also influence the future make-up of the squad, and the assessment of this match. It may be redundant to keep returning to how South Africa manage heists without Steyn, but it still needs to be mentioned.
Some of South Africa's most inspired performances have taken place when they are a man down. Most recently, that man has been Steyn. This time, South Africa had more resources at their disposal than on previous occasions because they had four quicks instead of the usual three, but the effect of losing someone mid-match, especially someone with the aura of Steyn, cannot be underestimated. It would have been an easy excuse to fall apart after losing Steyn, but the importance of this series and of stamping their authority at home meant South Africa could not accept that of themselves.
And so, with their almost-full-strength XI, they came close to being almost beaten but proved themselves too strong. It's little wonder the outcome has left du Plessis extremely proud.
"It's not like I scored two hundreds in this game and it's one of my favourite games of cricket," du Plessis said. "There was this flow the whole time: India's on top then South Africa's on top, then they are taking the game to us and we are taking it back to them. Just as an advert for Test cricket, that's as good as it gets. There was no boring Test cricket, it was a lot of action. And that's why we absolutely loved this Test match. And even if we had lost this game, we would have been very disappointed but would have said the way this game was played was remarkable."