In Test cricket, as in life, there comes situations that define you as a team and as a person. How you react to them tells the world what you're made of. Usually there is no set right or wrong way to go about it, and what's worse is that you are judged in hindsight on decisions you make in these circumstances.
The middle session of the fourth day was one such moment for this Indian team. Whatever had happened in the past could have been forgotten. It was here, it was now. It was in this session that we would get to know a lot about this team. All the bowling errors of the first morning had been made up for through some good fielding and a South African collapse. The batting errors had been accounted for with Virat Kohli's bull-headed 153. Even on the fourth morning, three wickets had somehow fallen.
The game was set up delicately: South Africa were 201 ahead, they had five wickets in hand, and there were five sessions to go. India could have risked letting South Africa take the advantage by going all out for wickets. South Africa's lower order had been vulnerable, so it was not that outlandish a thought. Or India could have tried to tie South Africa down and wait for mistakes: to see how much South Africa wanted to push the game on a pitch that looked like a foreign pitch to the hosts, a surface on which they couldn't prise Kohli out in the first innings.
There was a decision to be made: defend or attack? Risk having to chase 350 to keep the target down to reasonable limits of 250? Or play the long game and back your batsmen to chase down 300 if needed but no more, because by then South Africa would run out of time to set any more?
This team wants to be seen as an aggressive team, one that plays to win all the time. This was a test of its aggression, but also whether it trusted its bowlers to back it up. India chose the latter. A large portion of the middle session involved Hardik Pandya bowling offcutters from the Pavilion End which didn't support fast bowlers, and Ishant Sharma bowling line and length from the Hennops River End, which supported pacers with variable pace and bounce. Mohammed Shami, who took all the three wickets to fall in the first session, bowled only one over in that extended middle session; R Ashwin, who had a nice patch of rough to attack from the end Pavilion End, got five.
Ishant is a much-improved bowler from the one we saw for the first three quarters of his career. But Ishant still cherishes certain situations. One of them is to bowl dry, when a low economy rate is good enough for the captain, when wickets are not actively hunted down but come as a bonus. He was at home in this spell. Over after over he ran in. He bowled eight overs straight in the searing heat of the Highveld for 11 runs and two wickets. This would have been a great spell in isolation, but, by not threatening the wickets of Faf du Plessis and Vernon Philander, were India bowling themselves out of the match?
Shami later said the captain possibly wanted to bowl him once a breakthrough was created so that he could run through the rest. But in a move reminiscent of the Durban Test on the last trip, India didn't even take the new ball on what was showing enough evidence of being a new-ball pitch. There was enough proof, however. Jasprit Bumrah looked excellent with the new ball but not as effective once it became soft, but India failed to recognise their moment to go on the all-out attack and risk being batted out. Over by over in that attritional session, India were bowling themselves out of the Test, a Test that was their best chance of winning in South Africa because of the subcontinental conditions they had been offered.
It is important to look at what might have prompted Kohli to do what he did. There was the obvious risk of going for too many runs on an unyielding pitch while trying to actively hunt wickets. His big spinner was not giving him wickets. His fast bowlers had shown signs of being inaccurate and profligate under pressure. Shami's spell, in the morning, was merely an aberration to his series form.
Kohli might make aggressive statements verbally, but when it comes to captaining on the field, he is even more conservative than his predecessor MS Dhoni. Every time he is put under pressure, Kohli wants to take wickets by controlling runs. What he did in the middle session was his natural captaincy. And to be fair to Kohli, on any other day of the Test, 57 for 2 in a session would have been a great result. This, though, was not any other day; this was not any other session. This was a session in which India needed to blow the rest of the South Africa line-up away for 50 runs, no more. Instead they let them take 85, drip by drip, drop by drop.
Perhaps a balance of the two approaches was the way to go. Once a wicket was taken, perhaps India needed to attack with their two strike weapons instead of continuing to plug the runs. As it will turn out, 287 is likely going to be too much to chase at a ground where 251 is the highest fourth-innings total. It is quite possible India might have been chasing 350 had they taken the other approach, but they would have given themselves a chance of chasing a more realistic 250 if they had succeeded. What they chose to do, tells you how this team tackles situations and how much it backs its bowlers.