Cape Town — Whatever is going on in Australia at present, where England are offering up cheap runs and cheap wickets at a tawdry level in the Ashes, the theatre that has unfolded here at Newlands over the past three days has underlined the values of true Test match cricket.
And on what in all likelihood will be the penultimate day of this utterly engrossing series, the drama reached fever-pitch here on Thursday.
It made for captivating viewing as both teams offered plenty of resolve, determination and great competence, all virtues that make Test cricket the spectacle that it is.
By its end, South Africa’s noses were in front with 111 required for victory with eight wickets intact. But it was not without controversy that lit up an already flaming afternoon. With the series balanced on a knife-edge after India set the hosts 212 in seven sessions, and South Africa edging closer on 60/1, the Proteas captain Dean Elgar was wrapped on the pads.
Ravi Ashwin’s appeal for LBW was upheld by umpire Marais Erasmus and the Indian team gathered to celebrate the dismissal of their Wanderers nemesis. Elgar reviewed the decision more in hope than belief, and his worst fears were confirmed when the Newlands big screen showed the ball cannoning into his front pad below the knee roll.
Accepting his inevitable fate, Elgar turned his back on the crease and began making his way back to the pavilion before the replay showed the ball going over the stumps. Elgar, and in turn South Africa, had been offered a lifeline which absolutely incensed Virat Kohli.
The Indian captain had an immediate outburst upon witnessing the television replay before walking straight up to the stump microphone to vent his frustrations at the host broadcaster.
The tension in the middle was at absolute boiling point and Elgar (30) eventually succumbed shortly before the close when another review was called upon to adjudicate a catch down the leg side off Jasprit Bumrah. There was to be no second reprieve with the replay showing a faint edge and India had their man with the very final ball of the day.
It was the fitting climax that had seen the first wicket to fall on just the second ball of the morning for the second consecutive day. Marco Jansen was the benefactor of a brilliant piece of fielding from Keegan Petersen, who dived full length to his right at leg gully to arguably pouch the catch of the series.
For all the domination of the bowlers, it was left to Rishabh Pant to once again haul out an innings of the highest quality when the stakes were at its greatest. Just like at the Gabba last year when he drove India to a memorable series victory with a sparkling batting display, the young wicket-keeper stroked an undefeated 100 off just 139 balls to give his team the belief they could create history at the foot of Table Mountain.
In fact, he would have been disappointed that his teammates could not help craft a bigger lead after a 94-run partnership with Kohli (29, 143 balls) had provided the platform.
But such has been the nature of the series that neither team has been able to press home the advantage with South Africa roaring back through Lungi Ngidi (3/21) and Marco Jansen (4/36) as India lost their last six wickets for just 46 runs.
South Africa’s pursuit of happiness began in positive fashion with Aiden Markram (16) attempting to stroke himself out of poor form, but after a few scrumptious boundaries succumbed to his sword when he was caught in the slip cordon attempting another rasping cover drive.
The momentum was further driven home by the in-form Petersen (48 not out, 61 balls, 7x4) that seemed intent to play positively, but the door was left open once again with Elgar’s late dismissal.
There’s no turning back for either team on Friday. And the way this series has unfolded, it will be nothing less than another crackerjack.
India first innings 223 all out (Virat Kohli 79, Cheteshwar Pujara 43, Kagiso Rabada 4/73, Marco Jansen 3/55)
South Africa first innings 210 all out (Keegan Petersen 72, Temba Bavuma 28, Jasprit Bumrah 5/42, Mohammed Shami 2/39)
India second innings 198 all out (Rishabh Pant 100*, Virat Kohli 29, Marco Jansen 4/36, Lungi Ngidi 3/21)
South Africa second innings 101/2 (Keegan Petersen 48*, Dean Elgar 30, Mohammed Shami 1/22, Jasprit Bumrah 1/29)
South Africa need 111 runs to win.