India strived hard to stay on top. South Africa gave its best to stay afloat.

The right ingredients are in place as a captivating first Test heads towards a grandstand finish. The fourth day at the Wanderers Stadium was all about the visitor multiplying its dominance and setting a steep target — 458. The penultimate day was also about the host resisting stoutly until being undermined by the dismissals of skipper Graeme Smith and Hashim Amla in the last hour.

At close on Saturday, South Africa scored 138 for two in its second innings and needs another 320 to pull off a miracle. Clearly, M.S. Dhoni’s men hold the aces but there is always talk about ‘glorious uncertainties.’

Embarking on an arduous chase spread over 45 overs on the fourth day, followed by an entire concluding day, Smith and Alviro Petersen (76 batting) swapped their opening slots and the latter took guard against Zaheer Khan.

Perhaps Smith wanted to breathe easy or may be Petersen was entrusted with the task of unhinging the Indian spearhead, who was keen to have a go at the South African captain.

Either way, India gained a psychological brownie point though the openers lasted well till tea (38 for no loss) with Zaheer being a touch unlucky as Smith’s walk-about glance popped out of a leaping Virat Kohli at backward square-leg. After the break, the openers prospered with Petersen being fluent while Smith staying dogged and finding Zaheer a difficult opponent.

Play-and-miss interludes happened, the rivals smiled — Zaheer’s was smug and Smith’s was sheepish — but they battled on while Petersen pulled Mohammad Shami and audaciously scooped R. Ashwin over short fine-leg. Gradually Smith gained confidence, punching Zaheer to mid-wicket and then essaying the southpaw’s high-art shot — the cover-drive against Ashwin.

A critical 108-run partnership was raised but when Smith ran following a push to mid-on off Ashwin, he didn’t fathom Ajinkya Rahane’s throwing arm! India had caused a breach and when Shami’s short-pitched delivery never gained the required elevation, thanks to the pitch playing its wicked part, a ducking Amla was made to look like a fool. The stumps were in disarray and India got its nose ahead.

In the morning, resuming at 284 for two, Cheteshwar Pujara (153) and Kohli extended their third-wicket partnership to 222 as India progressed to a second innings score of 421. After 10 overs of Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander, Smith opted for Jacques Kallis and Jean-Paul Duminy, but before India could say ‘business as usual’, it inexplicably lost three quick wickets.

Heartbreak for Kohli

Pujara snicked a cut off Kallis, who later found a malevolent crack to keep the ball low and beat Rohit Sharma’s defence. In a story of varying heights, the next dismissal — tragically Kohli’s at 96 — was caused by Duminy’s ball revealing extra bounce. Kohli edged and trudged away, ruing his lost chance of scoring a second ton in the game.

India had lost three wickets for a mere 12 runs but even then, the lead was swelling towards 400 when just before lunch Rahane (358 for six) fell to Duminy. In the afternoon, India lost wickets but showed no intent to prematurely draw in the curtains even as the tail, led by Zaheer, infuriated the Proteas with inner-edges that missed the stumps and sixes struck with a flourish.

Those were the minutes that left the South Africans deflated before they slipped on their batting gear and tried another tilt at one of the toughest task in Tests — a 400-plus fourth innings chase. Only four teams have achieved that objective in history. South Africa is one among them, having scored 414 for four against Australia at Perth in 2008.

Can Smith’s men do it again? The fifth day will offer all the answers though Dhoni’s men fancy their chances. The Indian skipper bowled too, and why not in a match in which the Indians seemingly can’t do anything wrong!

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