Two late strikes by Jasprit Bumrah kept India on course for victory despite a defiant half-century by South African captain Dean Elgar on Day 4 of the first Test at SuperSport Park in Centurion on Wednesday.
Bumrah produced a superb delivery which cut back sharply to end a long defensive innings by Rassie van der Dussen before bowling nightwatchman Keshav Maharaj in the last over of the day.
South Africa, chasing 305 for an unlikely win, were 94-4 at the close, with Elgar still at the crease after batting for more than three hours to make 52 off 122 balls against hostile bowling on a tricky surface.
South Africa are still 211 runs off what would be a remarkable victory on a wicket that is treacherous for the batsmen with sideways movement, but also variable bounce. Some deliveries are staying low and others spitting off the surface with exaggerated bounce.
They will need to negotiate the skilful India attack on the final day as the tourists attempt to secure a victory as they look to secure a first series win in South Africa, with Tests in Johannesburg and Cape Town to follow.
The highest fourth innings score to win in Centurion is 251-8 by England in 2000, an infamous Test where both teams agreed to forfeit an innings after rain to force a result. The next best successful chase is 226-4 by South Africa against Pakistan in 1998.
“The wicket has variable bounce so if we keep bowling the right areas then we're in a good position in the game,” India batting coach Vikram Rathour told reporters.
“If we can carry on doing that tomorrow, I think we will create lot of opportunities … We need to keep hitting those lengths consistently.”
It was a typically determined effort by Elgar, who saw opening partner Aiden Markram bowled by Mohammed Shami in the second over of the innings.
Markram's early dismissal continued a dismal sequence of opening partnerships for South Africa in their last three Tests of nought, one, four, two and one.
Keegan Petersen made 17 before he was caught behind off Mohammed Siraj but Elgar and van der Dussen (11) made the bowlers work for more than 22 overs on a hot afternoon before the latter fell to Bumrah.
“We have to show belief,” South Africa fast bowler Kagiso Rabada said. “We will strategise overnight and work out how we want to approach this.
“Dean has done this countless times, where he shows fight when it is toughest. He will know his job is not over, he is leading from the front.”
It was a day of contrasts. India eked out 63 runs for the loss of three wickets in the morning, seeing off the shine and hardness of a ball which was still relatively new. But the match moved ahead rapidly during an extended afternoon session.
Starting the afternoon with an overall lead of 209, India took a more attacking approach as they added 95 runs off 18.3 overs while losing their remaining seven wickets.
There was more disappointment for India captain Virat Kohli (18) as he chased a wide delivery for the second time in the Test and was caught by wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock off the bowling of tall left-arm fast bowler Marco Jansen.
In 14 Tests since the start of 2020, Kohli has scored 652 runs at an average of 26.08, almost half his career average that stood at 50.65 before this match.
Despite Kohli falling to that first ball after lunch, the Indian batsmen went for their shots while wickets fell at regular intervals.
Ajinkya Rahane hit Jansen for two fours and a six off successive deliveries before being caught in the deep off the same bowler in his next over.
Risabh Pant played a typically aggressive innings and top-scored with 34 off 34 balls as India were earlier bowled out for 174.
South African seamers used the conditions perfectly with Rabada (4-42) and 21-year-old left-arm debutant Jansen (4-55) the chief wicket takers.