Graeme Smith made a battling 94 but not all South Africans could build on the starts they had © Getty Images
Graeme Smith had to seek refuge in humour when asked about a pitch that has put his team in an unenviable position heading into the final two days at Newlands. Smith showed the way with a superb 94, but no other batsman built on a start to construct a substantial innings, leaving South Africa 41 adrift at the end of the first innings. With the pitch affording sharp turn, albeit of the slow kind, South Africa will need to bowl out of their skins on day four to keep alive slim hopes of victory.
"Never ever," said Smith when asked if he had ever seen a pitch such as this in South Africa. "Never ever, and hopefully never again," he added with a rueful laugh.
But having set such a good example with the bat, Smith was in no mood to concede victory to the Indians. "It's not hard to win," he said. "We just have to play well. I think the wicket deteriorated a lot more than what we expected. It took a lot of turn from both ends. There was more turn to the right-handers.
"I think the other key to their success was the reverse-swinging ball. They got it to reverse early and that's going to be the key to our success too. There has not been a lot of natural swing around with the dry conditions. We have to come up with a plan and get that. Obviously, how our spinner and part-timers bowl will also be key. But with a 40-odd lead, they have their noses slightly ahead."
India waited till the 116th over before Sreesanth was given the second new ball, but Smith admitted that the decision to keep going with the old ball hadn't surprised him. "We were going well and the ball was reverse swinging a lot," he said. "The ball was quite soft and it was difficult to score freely. They were creating pressure with the swinging and turning ball."
Though the association between Smith and Hashim Amla realised only 29 more runs in the morning, vital partnerships between Jacques Kallis and Ashwell Prince, and Shaun Pollock and Mark Boucher, got South Africa within range of India's total. And though he regretted not pushing on past 414, Smith praised his batsmen for the manner in which they had adjusted to a challenging surface.
"Talking to the guys who were batting, they were saying that the ball was quite soft and to create any pace on it was difficult," he said. "There were some soft dismissals today but we shifted into a subcontinental frame of mind. It was also important to keep them under pressure."
Despite his reluctance to make any sort of excuse, there was no hiding Smith's irritation at his team's predicament on a pitch that Wasim Jaffer admitted was like a New Year gift to the Indians. "It's like playing in India," said Smith candidly. "Batting fourth is always going to be the toughest part of the game and I think this wicket will break up a little.
"A lot of the guys got starts, got to 50, but unfortunately no one took it on today. Those were the positives for us going forward. If we can take the initiative and put India under pressure [with the ball], it will give us an opportunity. The turning ball is going to be an issue."
Anil Kumble wasn't at his best on day three, but still finished with figures of 4 for 117. It would surprise no one if Smith has the odd nightmare contemplating what he might do on a fifth-day pitch.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo