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India fight back with three last-hour wickets

ESPNcricinfo logo ESPNcricinfo 13-01-2018 Karthik Krishnaswamy

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South Africa 269 for 6 (Markram 94, Amla 82, Ashwin 3-90) v India

After all the talk of the pace and bounce of the Highveld, Centurion ended up providing India the most subcontinental conditions they could have expected on this tour. The skies were blue, the pitch was brown, and R Ashwin bowled the bulk of India's overs.

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That could have been the extent of India feeling at home. For the first 80.4 overs of the day, South Africa's batsmen had pitched a tent, pinned family photographs onto the canvas, and made this flat, friendly surface their home. Aiden Markram had fallen narrowly short of a hundred, but Hashim Amla looked all set to stroll past that milestone, and South Africa were 246 for 3.

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And then, Centurion 2018 turned into Kolkata 2010. Amla and Alviro Petersen had scored centuries that day, only for South Africa to collapse from 218 for 1 to 296 all out, in a typically Eden Gardens post-tea collapse.

Here, South Africa lost three wickets for the addition of five runs, two of them to run-outs, and India, out of nowhere, were back in the game. They hardly deserved to be: Ashwin and Ishant Sharma apart, their frontline bowlers had been poor.

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Deserve, however, has nothing to do with Test cricket; a few overs is all it takes, sometimes, for a match to swing 180 degrees.

It began, as it often can, with a moment of brilliance on the field. Amla got on his toes, rode the bounce of a short ball from Hardik Pandya, and tucked it gently into the on side. Faf du Plessis called for one, and Amla, after a moment's hesitation, responded. That moment was enough; Pandya sprinted across in his follow-through, swooped on the ball, spun around, and fired a direct hit at the bowler's end. Amla was gone, for 82.

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In walked Quinton de Kock, a left-hander. Ashwin, from round the wicket, greeted him with a quick-turning offbreak in the channel outside off stump. New to the crease, de Kock pushed at it without really moving his feet and edged to slip.

All the swirling excitement and anxiety of the moment got to Vernon Philander, who ten minutes earlier would not have expected to put on his pads. A bunt into the leg side, a mad dash to the other end despite his captain yelling at him to stay put. South Africa were 251 for 6 and India flooded the stump mic with yelps of delight.

For most of the first eight-ninths of this day, India's voices had been muted. The first four South African wickets had added 85, 63, 51 and 47, indicative of an attack that seldom applied pressure from both ends, and a top order that batted with a great degree of comfort.

Playing only his seventh Test innings, Markram passed 50 for the fourth time, and looked a natural fit at this level. Taking guard on off stump, he stood tall and stood still at the crease, making no trigger movement and as a result remaining perfectly balanced. Time and again India's seamers slipped in the full, straight lbw ball in vain; Markram's head refused to fall across to the off side, and he punched and drove handsomely through the V, the area wide of mid-on proving particularly productive.

When the quicks dropped short, he punished them with punches and slaps through the covers and, on one occasion, a dismissive pull. The Saturday crowd at Centurion got to see all these shots frequently, since the fast bowlers, Ishant Sharma apart, kept feeding him boundary balls.

Jasprit Bumrah showed control with the new ball, but sprayed it around in all his subsequent spells, while Mohammed Shami, much like day one in Cape Town, was wayward and below top pace with the new ball. Just when he seemed to be finding some rhythm and reverse-swing around an hour after lunch, Shami went off the field, looking a little under the weather. India's team management later clarified it was a "mild headache".

Bounce apart, there wasn't a whole lot of help for the seam bowlers, and perhaps this was why India went in with Ishant ahead of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, who had picked up 4 for 87 and 2 for 33 in Cape Town. Ishant responded impressively, coming on as first change and testing Dean Elgar's footwork and judgment with his angle, a bit of seam movement, and a fullish length that drew the left-hander forward.

Having fought his way through this spell, Elgar survived a testing period against Ashwin just before lunch, getting beaten twice in 10 balls, with India unsuccessfully reviewing for caught-behind on one occasion. Soon after lunch, Elgar stepped out and drove Ashwin back over his head - perhaps the shot of an anxious batsman looking to hit his tormentor off his length - but the next time he tried stepping out, he didn't reach the pitch of the ball and ended up stabbing a catch to silly point.

This was India's best period of play all day, with Ashwin finding dip and bounce at one end and Ishant bowling tightly at the other. These two couldn't keep bowling forever, however, and South Africa soon returned to free-scoring ways, with Amla turning the clock back with the wristwork on his flicks and back-foot punches. It took a change of angle for India to effect their next breakthrough, Markram edging Ashwin behind when he went around the wicket. The ball, angled across Markram, didn't spin back as much as he expected, but it was the length that did him, pinning him awkwardly to the crease and making him jab away from his body.

AB de Villiers was busy right from the time he came in, unveiling the reverse-sweep to pick up a boundary off Ashwin when he was still in single figures, but there was a touch of looseness to his game as well. A jab away from his body at Bumrah resulted in an inside-edge that nearly trickled onto his stumps, and when he tried the same shot against Ishant after tea, he chopped on for 20. The ball had begun to keep low every now and then, by now, and this was a shot he could have avoided.

At that point, though, South Africa were still in too dominant a position to worry unduly. Amla was looking at his serene best, putting Shami away disdainfully when he kept dropping short in a brief post-tea spell, driving Ashwin against the turn with a twirl of his wrists, and, on 79, keeping out a shin-high shooter from Bumrah as if it was a perfectly normal delivery. Just when he looked set to coast to a century and beyond, however, a moment's hesitation brought India roaring back to life.

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