du Plessis, Philander frustrate the visitors with undefeated 67-run partnership

Perhaps it was the tea they imbibed. Perhaps it had to do with the huddle they had before the day’s last session. Whatever it was, the Indians roared back into contention, thanks to the combined might of Ishant Sharma, Zaheer Khan and Mohammad Shami as five wickets were grabbed while 95 runs were conceded in the final 150 minutes.

M.S. Dhoni’s men managed to make up for the earlier stages of play ranging from morning’s batting collapse to an afternoon session marred by a dogged Graeme Smith.

Faf du Plessis and Vernon Philander further frustrated the Indians with an unfinished 67-run seventh-wicket partnership. du Plessis was lucky when Rohit Sharma dropped him (on 17) off Shami.

A hard second day’s play left the Indians a touch ahead of South Africa in the first Test here at the Wanderers Stadium.

At close on Thursday, South Africa was 213 for six in reply to India’s 280.

The evening’s frenzied passage, though, seemed distant when India’s last batsman Shami trudged towards the crease. At first slip, Smith shadow-practised a few shots but found actual batting was not as easy. The South African skipper (68) grimly held on and braved Zaheer’s first spell.

Fascinating duel

After India’s collapse, South Africa had to deal with 10 overs before lunch, a tricky proposition thanks to Zaheer’s history of dominance over Smith. It made for a fascinating duel — Zaheer nipping the ball back, Smith trying to counter the swing, surviving an lbw appeal, getting hit on his right knee but importantly, the host captain survived.

Zaheer was a picture of brooding menace. Beat the bat, glare, elicit a streaky shot, glare and that is all he did while maintaining the pressure and Shami too kept it tight.

Post-lunch, Smith struck two fours off Zaheer but luck too favoured the southpaw.

On 19, Smith’s edge off India’s spearhead, dipped into a diving R. Ashwin’s hands and rolled out at first slip. Ishant, meanwhile, dismissed Alviro Petersen with the one that darted in. Later in the day, Ishant was warned for running onto the danger area on his follow-through.

Quirky pitch

Batting wasn’t easy on a pitch that revealed its quirky nature through a few low deliveries. Gradually Smith displayed some fluency, cover-driving Ishant and added 93 runs for the second-wicket with Hashim Amla, whose deft off-side touches mildly negated Zaheer’s efforts.

Pressed into service in the 32nd over, Ashwin found Smith clouting a four through long-on and the South Africans moved to a comfortable score of 118 for one at tea.

But, before they could even comment about the sandwiches and Ceylon tea they had at the break, the Proteas’ fortunes nose-dived. The Indians fine-tuned their lengths and Ishant’s 12th over delivered a double blow — Amla shouldered arms and heard the timber rattle and off the next delivery, the lanky fast bowler scalped Jacques Kallis.

Eerie number

The number 130 turned eerie as on the same score Zaheer nailed Smith for the seventh time in Tests.

The ball stayed full, swung a shade and Smith’s pads were struck in line.

Promptly, Shami dismissed J.P. Duminy and A.B. de Villiers and with that the match had reached its tipping point.

In the morning, under low slung clouds and with an air that stayed cold, India lasted a mere 13 overs, scoring 25 runs and losing five wickets.

“Usually after rusty days, we tend to work better,” South Africa’s bowling coach Allan Donald had ominously said on Wednesday.

True to his words, the host’s speedsters, especially Philander, came back firing, bowling a tighter line and forced the Indians, resuming at 255 for five, to pay a fatal price.

The damage though was made minimal thanks to that beguiling final session.

However, as du Plessis and Philander showed, there is still time for the last word to be pronounced on this intriguing Test.

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