South Africa 275 (Maharaj 72, du Plessis 64, Philander 44*, Ashwin 4-69), Yadav 3-37) trail India 601 for 5 dec (Kohli 254*, Agarwal 108, Jadeja 91, Rahane 59, Pujara 58, Rabada 3-93) by 326 runs

Keshav Maharaj and Vernon Philander, the lead spinner and senior seamer of the South African squad, were picked to do a job with the ball. But the pair frustrated India in the opposite discipline with a ninth-wicket partnership of 109 runs, South Africa’s third-highest in the series, and may have staved off an innings defeat.

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Virat Kohli will able to sleep on whether he wants to put South Africa in again, 326 runs behind but he will have plenty to consider. His bowlers were in the field for 105.4 overs and South Africa’s lower-order showed they are capable of making India work for their wickets. Kohli may also be wary of batting last on a surface that is taking more turn, even if there is only an outside chance that India will need to chase a target. Either way, they sit in prime position to seal the series in the remaining two days and have asserted their dominance over a South African side whose quality remains in question.

South Africa’s top-order were beaten at their own game as India’s seamers reduced them to 53 for 5. Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami maintained a slightly fuller length and bowled to attacking fields, whereas South Africa’s bowlers had erred on the side of too short and too wide, and the difference brought wickets. Nightwatchman Anrich Nortje was dismissed in the third over, caught at fourth slip and Theunis de Bruyn, who looked confident on the front foot for much of his 30 runs, ended up stuck in his crease, uncertain whether to move forward or back to Yadav delivery and was caught behind.

Mohammed Shami takes flight BCCI

That brought South Africa’s most accomplished pair, captain Faf du Plessis and wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock together. They posted 75 runs, with du Plessis increasingly authoritative on the cover drive, but the resistance was broken when de Kock was bowled by an R Ashwin delivery that also tested his footwork. South Africa scored 100 runs in the morning session but the loss of three wickets and all but one of their top six batsmen saw them staring down the barrel of being asked to follow-on for the first time since 2008. It seemed certain that they would be asked to bat again as Kohli saved his quicks and kept his spinners on for 38 overs, but South Africa’s tail had other ideas.

Philander, who was coming off a pair in the first Test, faced 22 balls before he scored his first run, an indication that he was settling in for a long stay. With du Plessis having brought up his second half-century of the series and looking comfortable on the sweep as well, South Africa showed some fight but Ashwin made a timely breakthrough when he found du Plessis’ outside edge with a delivery that went straight on. At 162 for 8, South Africa’s resistance seemed up but Maharaj and Philander stonewalled so well against a ball that was softening that they forced Kohli to bring back his seamers.

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Maharaj’s effort was particularly impressive because he did it nursing an injury. He went down while fielding on the first day and was taken for scans on his right shoulder. They proved inconclusive so he returned for a second set of scans on Saturday and was cleared to bat, and make jaws drop. The team management certainly sat back and marveled as he scored a career-best 72 off only 132 balls. It is, however, still unclear if Maharaj can bowl as the Test match drags on.

The only chance of the entire partnership came when Maharaj, on 44, offered a return catch to Ashwin but the offspinner could not hold on his follow-through. Maharaj went on to a maiden Test fifty and his partnership with Philander leapfrogged the 91 runs put on by Dane Piedt and Senuran Muthusamy for the ninth-wicket in Visakhapatnam. They also faced the second-highest number of balls by any ninth or 10th wicket pair in India – 259.

South Africa’s ninth-wicket is only 30 runs off being their most productive pairing in this series. Under different circumstances, that would be something to celebrate. Now though, it will only leave their top order wondering why they have not be able to put similar pressure on India when it mattered more instead of when the fight is already up. They will have a second innings to answer that question, and it may come as early as tomorrow.

India bowled South Africa out in the dying stages of the day’s play, first removing Maharaj, who was caught at leg slip and then trapping Kagiso Rabada lbw. Ashwin claimed both wickets. That leaves India with two full days, either to add to their total and then attempt to bowl South Africa out again or to try to take 10 more wickets straight away. Given how porous South Africa’s batting has looked, either will be regarded as a safe option, putting India within touching distance of a series win.