The South Africans, having built up a good head of steam over the course of day two, cashed in today with a good bowling performance that knocked India out for 240 for a lead of 88 in the second Test in Durban on Thursday.
Opening batsmen Graeme Smith and Abraham B de Villiers then hammered the advantage home with a gritty, committed opening partnership that, for the first time in the series, saw the home side past the 50 mark without loss of a wicket.
When bad light ended play early for the third day in a row, South Africa were 64/0, sitting on a cumulative lead of 152 runs with all ten second innings wickets standing.
On balance, the Proteas have the advantage, which they can press home over the last two days of this Test; yet, there are enough intriguing possibilities to keep this game poised on a razor's edge.
(Full report follows)
Two wickets falling in the seventh over of the morning session of day three swung the tide South Africa's way; the continued fall of wickets through the extended morning session ensured that the home team went in to lunch feeling reasonably good about its prospects.
The home team will, in fact, feel justifiably aggrieved at the horrendous decision from umpire Asad Rauf, that kept India from losing a third wicket inside the span of four deliveries.
The most unfortunate part was the wicket of Sachin Tendulkar, which triggered the slide. From the first ball he faced this morning, the batsman looked remarkably organized. The front foot was gliding right out; the ball was hitting the middle of the bat as if drawn with a magnet, and there was something of the ominous in the way he greeted Makhaya Ntini's first ball of the morning with an easy glide forward and a clean punch that rocketed the ball to the mid-off fence.
Tendulkar then went on to play the shot of the innings; in Ntini's second over, he picked the length early, swayed away just a fraction to manufacture room, and played a blistering square drive that hit the fence before anyone, including the sweeper, could blink.
Judged by the way Tendulkar scored in fours and Laxman through tip and run tactics, the plan seemed to be for the latter to anchor, and for Tendulkar to provide momentum to the scoring.
Fair enough, except that given the way he was batting, the number four didn't need to get cutesy to accomplish that goal. He had already blunted the edge of South Africa's aggression; Smith had as early as the fourth over reduced the slip cordon to just two, and the two South African pacemen had resorted to a stream of short deliveries to try and curtail scoring.
That is when Tendulkar got cute. The fourth ball of the 7th over of the morning was a Ntini bouncer, that hit outside off and jagged in a shade. Tendulkar swayed back, brought his bat up and attempted to uppercut to the vacant third man; the ball jagged in more than he thought it would, cramped him for room, found the top edge and lobbed up for Boucher to complete the take, much to the exuberant relief of Graeme Smith, who had dropped the batsman on 21, and stood in the slips while watching him add another 42, and threaten much more (63/115; 125/4; 64 run partnership for the fourth wicket).
The real problem with that dismissal -- apart from the obvious waste of a batsman who finally seemed in prime form -- was that it came just when the South Africans were metaphorically moving back onto their collective back foot.
The bowling was by the numbers; the early swing and seam provided by overcast conditions was easing off (Graeme Smith compounded it by inexplicably taking the ball from Pollock after the bowler had finished his overnight over, and giving it to Andre Nel); the batsmen looked increasingly assured, and a turnaround seemed on the cards.
Sourav Ganguly lasted two deliveries. The first, from Ntini, he defended. The second was, predictably, a scorching bouncer, angling across, hitting middle and climbing into the body.
The batsman hopped away, took his eyes off the ball, and fended at it in reflexive defense; the ball caught the handle of the bat and looped up to point for Gibbs to complete an easy take (0/2; 125/5). For the longest time imaginable, Ganguly stood there, blinking and giving every sign of a batsman who hadn't seen the ball.
The first ball Andre Nel bowled to Mahendra Singh Dhoni was a peach - bowled at furious pace, it hit length, bit, skidded in off the seam and was homing towards the middle of middle stump when the batsman's pad intervened.
The only one watching who thought that was not out was Asad Rauf; as bad a decision as any of the shockers we've seen in this Test thus far.
Ntini and Nel spent the rest of the first hour peppering both batsmen with bouncers; Laxman was hit on the forearm, Dhoni took one on the helmet, it all looked quite spectacular - but the South African bowlers missed a bet in not tempering that aggression with some sense.
Dhoni, in particular, was not tested around his off stump before he was set, and by the time drinks were wheeled out, the batsman was feeling his oats sufficiently to thump fours off both Ntini and Nel.
Nel had a few things to say to Dhoni on the stroke of drinks; immediately after the break, the batsman responded by blazing successive fours, through covers and back past the bowler.
Dhoni's batting has been true to type; to anything short, he looks uncomfortable, even if occasionally effective with his leaves. To the indeterminate length, the batsman looks equally indeterminate, playing with hard hands but managing only to knock the ball around into the cordon. Bowl length or better, though, and he comes into his own - the front foot slides out, the bat whips through the arc at blinding speed, and the ball disappears where he wills.
In his 39-ball innings, he was tested maybe three times in that corridor just around off, where given his style of play, he can neither defend nor hit. On two occasions he was beaten, with the ball flashing dangerously close to the edge. On the third, he gave up the ghost. Morkel landed one in the corridor and moved it away late; Dhoni drove at it with hands as hard as concrete, got the lower edge on the ball and de Villiers at second slip came low and forward to take his third great catch of the Test, to give the debutant his first Test wicket, due reward for a vastly improved spell this morning (34/39; India 179/6; 54 runs for the sixth wicket.)
Anil Kumble didn't last long; a wild swipe at a Morkel delivery outside off found the edge through to Boucher (0/6; 179/7).
Zaheer Khan walked out, and displayed his new-found stickiness yet again, looking impressively organized in defense. The short ball, though, proved his undoing; he swung one from Pollock to fine leg, but against Morkel's extra pace, misjudged the shot and put it up for a simple take by Hashim Amla at square leg (2/20; 183/8).
The wicket signaled lunch; with Laxman soldiering on with 28/123 to his name; and India trailing by 145 on the first innings.
It is an intriguing position. SA can obviously force a win by piling runs up quick, then trying to bowl India out cheap. A draw is the clearest option. And then, the outside one: consider the weather conditions, which are getting increasingly swing and seam friendly, and ponder on the possibility of the Indian seam attack hitting its lines against a batting order under extreme pressure.
It is about as intriguing as it gets - and it has set up a great afternoon session, after SA won its fourth straight session to dominate the Test.
PostScript: Umpire Mark Benson, who walked off the field complaining of chest palpitations about 10 minutes into the morning session, has been taken to hospital for a precautionary test. It is unknown at the time whether he will play any more part in this Test.
Post lunch session:
If you are thinking turning points, this game first swung on the morning of day two, when Ashwell Prince and the South African tail defied India's efforts towards a quick end, and added 71runs.
Thehome team gained good momentum with that rearguard; since then, it has won every session thus far.
Bythat yardstick, India regained considerable momentum in the session after lunch, with Sreesanth and Laxman doing to the home bowlers what Prince and Morkel had done to the Indians.
Of particular interest was the Sreesanth-Nel confrontation -- their first real set-toafter the break dance that rocked the world.
Nelkicked it off, in the first full over after lunch, with a short ball that thumped into Sreesanth's body; the bowler then ran the length of the pitch, hand waving overhead in obvious parody.
Another lifter, and Sreesanth rose with it, cocked his wrists, and worked it through the slips to the third man boundary, then ran to the bowler's end of the pitch, bat waving emphatically, if not with the rowdy revelry of Johannesburg (Perhapshe was paying heed to his mother, who told him not to irritate the tall fast bowler too much, who knows?)
An irritated Nel responded with a body ball -a swinging full toss at hip height, which had Sreesanth unmoved and the umpires in animated conversation.
Vicecaptain VVS Laxman figured the side show had to end; in Nel's next over, he pointedly turned down three singles in four balls, then took one off the fifth. Sreesanth promptly cocked a snook at his senior, by playing an off drive, foot forward, elbow classically high, that sent the ball screaming to the fence.
Histriumphant grin at Laxman after the shot was played was pure joy. Laxman decided he had enough of playing local guardian, and settled down to play his own game while leaving Sreesanth to his own devices.
Thetailender secured his first victory when Nel, warned by umpire Asad Rauf for running down the middle of the pitch once too often, was taken off. The tall Proteas quick had hurled 11 balls at Sreesanth, and been taken for 11 runs, including two fours.
It was Morkel's turn to rap Sreesanth painfully on the knuckles with the last ball of the 74thover; revenge came swift when, in the bowler's next over, Sreesanth waltzed down to a short of length delivery and thumped it to long off, hitting deliberately above the man at mid off. One ball later, the batsman then leant back, and cut fiercely past point for another four to rub the message home.
Thefun finally ended in the next over, when Sreesanth backed away, looking to blast a short one from Andrew Hall over point and managed only to feather the edge through. He had, by then, done his bit, though, scoring 28/38 with five clean hit fours, in a 52-run partnership at well over 4.5 an over for the 9th wicket (India 235/9).
VRVSingh managed to flay Pollock for one four on the off side; an attempt to repeat the shot saw Pollock follow him with the ball to find the edge through to Boucher. Laxman remained not out on a painstaking 50, that earned high marks for patience, but had painfully few glimpses of the elegant stroke player he can be at his best.
57 runs had been added after the lunch break, and as the innings came to an end on 240 in 77.4 overs, South Africa had the advantage - 88 runs worth -on the first innings; I suspect, though, that if India hasn't regained the momentum, it has at the least stopped the home team in its rush.
Froman Indian point of view, disciplined bowling, on full lengths, would appear to be the prescription given the overcast conditions; take a couple of wickets early, and given their current state of fragility, the Proteas could crumble.
(South Africa innings)
Everytime Graeme Smith put bat to ball, however tentatively, the crowd cheered.
Evenwhen an outer edge, in Zaheer Khan's second over, fell shy of Jaffar at first slip, the cheers were pronounced.
And when, in the 5th over of the innings, Smith finally managed to dab one from Khan down to square leg for a single, the flag-wavingand cheering reached a crescendo; someone reading the game purely through noise levels would have thought a batsman had made a run a ball hundred out there.
You had to wonder how much such treatment from home fans weighs on the mind of the Proteas skipper, here playing his 50thTest match.
Tohis credit, Smith had enough will to put away an attempted yorker from Sreesanth, that erred on the side of length, through midwicket for his first four in, what, ages?
Actually, no - if you are talking Tests, Smith's last outing, before the India series, was against New Zealand in May, and his last scores were 63 and 68.
Notto argue that he is not struggling; the numbers merely made me wonder whether it is fair to transpose failures in one form of the game into the other.
Here,thus far, Smith has played it smart. He shrugged off the innumerable times when he was beaten; he ignored the applause, ironic or otherwise, and any chance he got, he dabbed the ball and ran like hell to the other side.
Atthe other end, de Villiers had his share of wincing as deliveries zipped past his outer edge, but when occasion afforded, as Sreesanth did on a couple of occasions, he was quick to put them away.
South Africa went in to tea having achieved a mini-objective: the two openers had seen off a tricky ten over spell, and were still together with the score reading 22/0 - a lead of 110with all wickets in tact.
Thelights have been out in full for some time now; the conditions don't, at this remove, suggest we will get a full final session. How the bleeding of time impacts the destiny of this Test is, I suspect, going to be as crucial a factor as any.
It was a session of firsts: The first time in this series that the South African score topped 50 with all wickets in tact; the first time all series when the Indian bowlers were made to raise a sweat -and grimace, when even the unplayable deliveries did everything but get wickets.
Itwas not that the Indian bowlers bowled any worse than they have in recent outings; as happens at times, they did all the right things without however achieving the breakthrough.
Againstthat, the South African openers, Smith and De Villiers, showed considerable grit. They were beaten time and again; they weathered it and always, they kept their eye open for the run-scoring opportunities.
Most importantly, both worked singles well, despite a close set field; the 15singles the two took ensured sufficient strike rotation, and prevented the Indian bowlers from bowling to any one batsman for extended periods.
It was a vastly improved display by the home team batsmen; the pity of it is that yet again, for the third successive day, bad light cut play short, with a possible 30.3overs yet to be bowled.
Ormore accurately, the ground was hit by a power cut. The lights, that had come on even before tea, went off; natural light wasn't good enough, and Smith - who, yesterday, argued passionately against a similar offer to the Indian batsmen - was quick to walk off.
192 overs have been bowled thus far; including the mandatory two overs deducted for change of innings, against a possible 270.
That is 72 overs in deficit, and though play will start again half an hour early in the morning tomorrow, that can make up a mere six, eight overs tops -with prospects, what is more, that tomorrow's play will again be curtailed early in the evening.
At close, South Africa with 64/0 are ahead by 152, and with all ten wickets remaining, have firepower on hand to make a frenetic push for the 300-350they will want to feel secure about putting India back in.
Thequestion really is, how soon can they get there. And how many overs will they then get at the Indians?
Itis all, at the close of day three, in the realm of advanced mathematics; on balance, though, this Test promises a cliffhanger, wind, weather and most importantly, light permitting.