India lost only their second session of the decisive third Test match against South Africa at Newlands on Friday — but it just happened to be the most important one of the series and may well have cost them their chance of an historic victory.
A miserable afternoon collapse saw the tourists bowled out for just 169 which, combined with their hard-earned first innings lead of 41, left South Africa with a victory target of just 211. By the close of play they had the strong scent of victory in their nostrils with a total of 55 for two, with captain Graeme Smith unbeaten on 21. South Africa require another 156 runs on Saturday. India need eight wickets.
Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly had repaired the damage of a horrible start to the second innings and had reached lunch at 73-2 after both openers had been dismissed with just six runs on the board.
Virender Sehwag's return to the top was always a gamble but few would have expected it to backfire so spectacularly when he slashed yet another wide delivery to the 'keeper before settling. He had barely made it back to the pavilion when first innings centurion Wasim Jaffer gloved a lifter from Makhaya Ntini to first slip.
Captain Dravid and his predecessor, however, took their third wicket stand to 84 after the lunch break and all seemed well once again until the demise of Ganguly for 46 led, first to an alarming stall in India's progress, and then to a dramatic collapse.
While it may be facile to blame Ganguly for losing patience against Jacques Kallis' obstinately defensive bowling line wide outside off stump, it is worth remembering that he is India's leading scorer in the three Test series and his half-century at the Wanderers did much to win the opening contest.
Nonetheless, he was the man in form and his careless jab to gully started a rot, which Sachin Tendulkar fed with their apparent determination to play ultra-cautious, mostly strokeless cricket, particularly against debutant left-arm spinner Paul Harris.
Harris has an element of 'mongrel' in him, a bit like the old warhorse Pat Symcox, but the truth is he is an honest trier against whom Tendulkar and Dravid should have been in their element having dominated far better spinners since their teenage years. Instead he was allowed to bowl what turned out to be a highly effective spell of 17 overs at a cost of just 42 runs while Kallis and Shaun Pollock tied up the other end equally effectively.
Tendulkar laboured desperately and his malaise spread to Dravid who found it just as hard to rotate the strike when singles were badly needed to keep the scoreboard moving. The captain's own words at the end of Day Three proved to be prophetic.
“The pace of the game picks up considerably on the last two days on pitches like this,” he said, “and wickets can start to fall far more quickly.”
Having reached 47 from 134 balls, Dravid chipped a return catch to Harris and had to endure the painful sight of the rest of the innings subsiding from the dressing room balcony.
Tendulkar's tortured crawl to 14 from 62 balls came to a close when Pollock trapped him lbw while VVS Laxman's lack of pace between the wickets resulted in his run out while striving for a second against Pollock's powerful throw from the deep square-leg boundary.
Had it not been for Dinesh Karthik's courageous cameo of 38 at number seven, during which he put to shame the lack of conviction of his seniors,
India would be staring straight down the twin barrels of defeat rather than viewing that possibility nervously out of the corner of their collective eye on Saturday morning.
The last four wickets tumbled for just 22 runs, three of them in what transpired to be the final over of the innings, in which Munaf Patel became the final casualty off the seventh ball, as the umpires became caught up in the chaos.
Dravid and coach Greg Chappell had wanted to set a target of at least 300 for the final innings and they should have been able to do so, even if it had meant batting for an hour on the final morning and leaving themselves 80 overs to win the match and complete India's finest series victory on foreign soil. But the enormity of that possibility may have been the very reason they froze and played so safely, or at least tried to. It is very hard to reach an alternative conclusion.
They may still win - in which case their nervous batting stutterings will be long forgotten. Zaheer bowled a beauty to have AB de Villiers (22) caught by Karthik and Anil Kumble trapped Hashim Amla (10) lbw with what became the last ball of the day.
Smith, however, is a man with a reputation for rising to the big occasion and they don't come much bigger than this in Test cricket. His will be the key wicket. For both sides.