India's batting woes in South Africa continued as the visitors folded up for 187 on day one of the third Test despite fighting half-centuries from captain Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara.
Kohli (54 off 106) raised a few eyebrows by opting to bat on a seaming track after going into the final game with an all-pace attack.
The captain's bold decision backfired though he was the stand out batsman yet again, negotiating a lethal pace attack with sublime skills.
Pujara (50 off 106) provided solid support to Kohli during their 84-run stand, the only significant partnership of the innings that lasted 77 overs.
South Africa had the unpleasant task of playing six overs before close of play. Pacer Bhuveshwar Kumar, brought back into the side, proved his worth by having opener Aiden Markram caught behind with South Africa ending the day at six for one.
Post tea, India lost six for 73 as after Pujara reached his 17th Test half-century off 173 balls.
Pujara added 31 runs with Parthiv Patel (2) for the fifth wicket. They looked to resurrect the Indian innings, before Pujara’s long vigil came to an end as he edged behind off Andile Phehlukwayo (2-25).
India lost three wickets for no addition to the score in the space of 12 balls at that juncture. Five balls after Pujara’s dismissal, Patel was caught behind off Morne Morkel (2-47).
Phehlukwayo then accounted for Hardik Pandya (0), who didn’t look convincing at all during his five-ball stay at the crease. The all-rounder was out caught pulling, with Quinton de Kock taking a fine catch running behind. It was another loose shot from Pandya considering the match situation.
Bhuvneshwar (30 runs, 49 balls, 4 fours) then played a brilliant hand to rescue India from 144 for seven.
First, he put on 19 runs with Mohammed Shami (8). Vernon Philander (2-31) and Kagiso Rabada (3-39) accounted for Shami and Ishant Sharma (0) thereafter as India were dangling dangerously at 166 for nine.
In fine rear-guard manner then, Bhuvneshwar added 21 vital runs with Jasprit Bumrah (0 not out) as he gave India something to bowl at. He was the last man out, caught pulling off Rabada.
This was after Kohli scored his 16th half-century to take India to 114 for four at tea.
Post lunch, Kohli and Pujara took their third wicket partnership to 84 runs. The duo played a few more shots, Kohli in particular, as they sped away after the break after India crossed 50 in the 29th over.
Kohli (on 32) got a second life then as AB de Villiers dropped him at third slip off Morne Morkel in the 33rd over. The batsman had chased a wide delivery, only to edge it.
He continued to play in an attacking manner, making his luck count, as their 50-partnership came off 134 balls. He had an engaging contest with Kagiso Rabada in this interim.
India made good progress as they added 50 runs in the first hour after lunch, the same number as they had scored in the entire first session. In doing so, the Indian skipper brought up his half-century off 101 balls.
Finally though, Kohli’s luck ran out as he was caught at third slip again, de Villiers holding on this time off Lungi Ngidi in the 43rd over.
India crossed 100 in the 46th over. Three overs later, Rahane was given a life when he was caught behind off Vernon Philander but it was deemed a no ball.
Rahane couldn’t make this opportunity count, as he was given out lbw in the 52nd over off Morkel. The batsman reviewed and the ball appeared to be going down leg side, only clipping the stumps minimally, but the decision stayed on umpire’s call.
He only added 16 runs with Pujara, who then saw through the remainder of the session in Patel’s company.
This was after India opted to bat first on a green-top wicket and reached 45 for two at lunch.
The visitors lost their openers early. KL Rahul (0) faced a near-unplayable spell from Philander and should have gone first ball, but somehow managed to survive. Six balls later though, he got an inside-edge off the same bowler and was caught behind.
India were reduced to 13 for two as Murali Vijay (8) was also caught behind off Rabada in the ninth over. The opener played away from his body, outside the off-stump, without any real footwork and this was a fourth time in five innings on this tour that he was dismissed in such fashion.
Pujara and Kohli then came together and resisted the South African bowling through a testing passage of play. They stayed together for 110 balls, despite being beaten and getting three lives between them.
Philander had almost trapped Pujara (on 0) lbw in the sixth over, only for DRS to stay with umpire Gould’s call of not-out as the ball seemed only to clip the bails.
Kohli had a life too, dropped by Philander at mid-on as he miscued a pull off Ngidi in the 21st over.
Pujara finally got his first run off the 54th delivery he faced, in the 22nd over, to loud cheers from the sparse Wednesday crowd at the Bull Ring.
Only on the previous delivery though, South Africa opted not to review even as replays showed Ngidi had trapped him lbw with ‘three reds’ on DRS.
Earlier, India picked an all-seam attack on a cloudy morning in Johannesburg. Bhuvneshwar came in for R Ashwin as India took the field without a full-time spinner for the first time since 2012, when Mahendra Singh Dhoni had opted for a four-pronged pace attack against Australia at Perth.
Rahane also came in for Rohit Sharma. This was the 35th Test wherein Kohli has fielded a different playing eleven in consecutive matches.
South Africa made just the one change, with seam all-rounder Adile Pheklukwayo coming in ahead of left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj.