India show courage and conviction on tricky surface

A 50-over-old ball had to seam back a mile - no indication of where it was going in the air - at 143kph and snake past the inside edge to do something for only the second time in Virat Kohli's career. Yes, he does get out playing a defensive shot to balls he can leave outside off, but this was only the second time a fast bowler had bowled him without hitting his bat on the way.

That is a remarkable statistic for an attacking batsman. It is also one of the more under-rated aspects of Kohli's batting. If there is a technical weakness outside off, this is such a strength. He hardly ever gives up his stumps. He has only ever been bowled seven times in his career out of 104 dismissals. Three times to spinners, even two of those off the edge, and four times to quicks. And it took a pitch of this devilry to repeat what had happened in 2014 when Kohli shouldered arms to Liam Plunkett in England. And not before he had followed up his 54 in the first innings with a 41 in the second.

It is as good as two centuries on a normal pitch. Kohli is remembered for his dominating big centuries, as he should be, but some of his best innings have been these little gems in the third innings of a Test. Kolkata against New Zealand and Visakhapatnam against England are two such examples where he just rose above the rest in difficult batting conditions. He whipped shooters to the midwicket boundary.

Here, though, batting was not just difficult, it was dangerous. The match was on the line in the third innings. M Vijay was getting hit with balls rearing off a length and also chasing him with seam movement back in. In the first hour, South Africa presented just one ball that was full enough to drive. Somebody had to retrieve it from the cover boundary because Kohli had driven it there.

Standing outside your crease and striding forward to bowlers such as Kagiso Rabada and Morne Morkel is not a good idea at the best of times. To do it here, on this mean track, can be suicidal. Kohli not just did that, he refused to go back in even when rapped on the gloves with a length ball. To have a control percentage of 76 on this pitch despite batting in the first session of the day is no joke. Courage is often a misplaced word in cricket, but not here. This was an innings played in the face of real danger.

It started with real courage of conviction that India could bat first on this surface. All through the series, the word "intent" has been overused and often mocked. He has not been articulating it properly, but one of his definitions of intent is to want to be there. To handle the heat in the kitchen. To look forward to training - he has been having two batting stints in every net session in the lead-up to this Test - and fielding and sledging and batting even though your side is losing. It couldn't have been more evident than in the decision he took at the toss. There are a few batsmen captains, and not just Indian, who would have chosen to bowl here, let alone looking forward to batting.

This series has been a tumultuous experience for Kohli the captain. His selection has come in for deserved criticism. His attitude to preparation and getting acclimatised to these conditions - nothing prepares you for this pitch, though - has been questioned. He has lost his first series as a full-time captain. He has been beleaguered, but there has not been a spell of play in this series when you could look at Kohli and say he didn't want to be out in the middle.

This time, finally, Kohli took the right support, but that too started with admission that he had made a selection error. It is not so much about picking Rohit Sharma, but when the cost of Rohit is leaving out your proven best batsmen in seeming conditions, it becomes a questionable call. To expect Rohit to do what Ajinkya Rahane does at No. 5 in Tests is an unfair as expecting Rahane to do what Rohit does when opening in ODIs. With a platform there, and India one concentrated attack away from reaching a lead they could bowl with, Rahane showed he is indeed the batsman who can turn a match in one session.

There were shades of Melbourne 2014-15 in this assault. Just as South Africa began to tie Kohli down, Rahane unfurled a series of drives on the up, and also cuts over the infield every time South Africa erred in length. When he is waiting for his turn to bat, Rahane sits and visualises what will be bowled to him and what he can do to dominate that bowling. And dominate he did. This was more of a usual Kohli innings. Here Kohli gave Rahane the platform, and Rahane launched from there.

"I was thinking what my approach was going to be because only survival was not the point on this wicket because we wanted to score runs and we were thinking if we get 170-180 that will be a good total on this track," Rahane said. "I was actually thinking from last night what are the important shots on this wicket and if I get aggressive in my batting I wanted to put South Africa on the back foot."

There was no shortage of courage here either. Early on in his innings he was hit on the back elbow by a length ball that kicked at him. He immediately looked at the dugout, not to draw the physio's attention, but to tell him not to come to help him because he wanted to send a message. He didn't even rub the elbow. This is so Rahane. On India's last tour here, his first real Test series, Rahane reacted similarly after Dale Steyn hit him.

"I remember thinking, 'Everybody is watching,'" Rahane told ESPNcricinfo later. "Back home on TV too. I didn't want to show to the world I was a soft boy. Or that the ball has hurt me. I had to give Dale Steyn a strong message too. That nothing has happened to me. That if you will keep standing here, I will also keep staring at you. You see, the batsman has an advantage here: the bowler has to go back to his mark at some point, and even if he turns around and looks at you, you can still meet his stare. I never lost eye contact."

This here, though, was not a fight with the bowler. Here you had to fight the pitch. Stare the devil in its eye, keep tapping it with the bat every chance you get, and bear everything it throws at you. India's courage didn't stop at Kohli and Rahane, rightfully back as India's two attacking batsmen. The defence of M Vijay for 127 balls, the application of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, the hitting of Mohammed Shami, they were all signs that the captain was not the only one wanting to be there in the middle.

This day's play won't undo the basic mistakes made in preparation and selection earlier on the tour as the series is already gone, but through this day's play, this team has done a lot to beat the derogatory notion that India's batsmen go missing when the heat is on. This was one of India's most glorious days of batting away from home in what is already one of India's most glorious Tests from home.

Here was a side risking going out of the game for weeks or months in an attempt to win a dead rubber. They were not just bearing with the pitch, they were enjoying it. You can see why India are aggrieved that at the end of the day they had to go off because the umpires felt the pitch was now dangerous just as much as you can see why the umpires would stop play. Anything less than a Test win in return for this effort will seem like an injustice to those who bravely took blow after blow. There is no guarantee the Test will end of its own volition and bring them a win, but they have already won many a cynic over with this batting performance.