He took 20 balls to get off the mark, hit his first boundary off the 42nd ball he faced, and at one point had scored only eight runs off 62 balls.
Cricket fans have grown used to starts like these from Cheteshwar Pujara, and they know the kinds of innings that can mushroom from these beginnings. But this was different; India were batting on the fourth day to try and set a target, and even as Rohit Sharma was providing their innings impetus at one end, there was none coming from the other.
Rohit himself, perhaps, was feeling impatient. At one point, he was caught on the stump mic yelling "Puji bhaag (run), *expletive redacted*" when Pujara turned down a single.
At the drinks break at the end of the 26th over, India's run rate was 2.42.
It wasn't as if Pujara hadn't been trying to score quickly; time and again he had stepped out to the spinners, trying to drive them through gaps in the infield. These were narrow gaps, between straight midwicket and mid-on, and short extra-cover and mid-off, but these are fields he is used to piercing. Except it wasn't happening for him.
There had been chances too, tough ones but chances nonetheless: a thick edge off the offspinner Dane Piedt that had deflected onto the wicketkeeper's right pad, an airborne flick that short leg couldn't hold on to.
Other batsmen might try to change their game plan at this point. Pujara didn't, at least not drastically. Around the time of the drinks break, he decided to make a minor tweak in his technique.
"It was a difficult pitch to bat on," he explained in his end-of-day press conference. "It was not easy to rotate the strike, it was not easy to time the ball well, and specially with my game and the kind of shots that I play, I was finding it a little difficult early on, but I always knew that once I am set, once my body is warmed up, once I find the right pace of the pitch, [things can change] because early on it was a two-paced pitch against fast bowlers and even against spinners.
"But once I knew that, I actually changed my point of impact a little later on."
He decided, in effect, to meet the ball further out in front of his body. "Early on I was trying to hit too hard; trying to play little late wasn't helping me," Pujara said. "Then obviously I had to play little bit up front with the bat because the pitch was quite slow against spinners, so I had to generate power. So I was playing in front with the bat."
Pujara steps out of his crease often to the spinners, but unlike most other batsmen he doesn't do it with the aim of hitting over the top. He sashays out of his crease to get as close to the pitch of the ball as possible. If he achieves this he looks to drive the ball into the gaps, always along the ground. If he doesn't, he adjusts and blocks, often using his front pad adroitly as a line of defence.
Before today, he had only been out three times in Test cricket while stepping out of his crease; caught at long-on off Jeetan Patel in Hyderabad in 2012 after scoring his maiden Test hundred (after which he vowed never to play that kind of shot again); stumped off Graeme Swann in Mumbai later that year, after scoring 135; and caught-and-bowled by Nathan Lyon in Sydney this January, for 193. Spot a pattern?
Now, to the second ball he faced after the drinks break, Pujara stepped out to Piedt with that technical adjustment in mind. He tried to whip the offspinner through midwicket, looking to meet the ball further out in front of his body than usual, and only managed an inside edge.
If Quinton de Kock had caught it, Pujara could have been out for 8 off 63 balls. That's the risk inherent in changing your game midway through an innings.
But with the risk can come reward too. Off the next 11 balls he faced, Pujara hit five fours, all of them beautifully controlled. Four of them came after he had danced down the track - through square leg, wide mid-on, extra-cover and fine leg - and the fifth came off a crisp square cut when the bowler, Keshav Maharaj, overcompensated with his length.
Pujara was finally out for 81, having scored 73 off the last 86 balls he faced. With Rohit scoring his second hundred of the Test match, a majestic, six-filled 127, India declared to set South Africa a target of 395, with a theoretical 13 overs on day four - they managed nine before bad light ended play - and all of day five left to play.
The timing of the declaration more or less ruled out a South Africa win, but there is one school of thought that India may have delayed it too much, and left themselves too little time to take ten wickets on a track where the visitors' first innings lasted 131.2 overs.
Pujara explained the thinking behind the timing of India's declaration.
"We did not want to bowl too many overs [before stumps] because we wanted to keep the ball hard for the start of day five," he said. "Once the ball gets soft it is slightly easier to bat. We picked up a crucial wicket (of Dean Elgar) so as a team we are happy with the way things went today, and hopefully we start well tomorrow and finish the day on a good note."
India's dismantling of South Africa's spinners suggested that the pitch hadn't deteriorated to any great extent, but Pujara said India's bowlers, both the quicks and the spinners, would have a decent amount of help. He pointed to Ravindra Jadeja's lbw dismissal of Elgar, which was aided by the ball keeping low, as a pointer to how things could pan out on Sunday.
"I think there is enough rough for spinners, and the cracks will open up a bit more on day five," he said. "The cracks will help the fast bowlers, and we have seen that the pitch has got variable bounce. I don't think it will bounce that much but there will be more bounce for the spinners on the rough.
"If we see the variable bounce for Jaddu in that delivery against Elgar, I think the ball hit the crack and kept a little low. So if there is variable bounce I think the spinners will enjoy hitting the ball on the cracks. But fast bowlers will be difficult to play on the cracks [too]."