India's cricketers have 180 overs of the third and deciding Test match remaining before they leave South Africa and return home. If they play them to their potential, they could rank amongst the most famous in Indian cricket history. A series win, apparently impossible a month ago, now looks distinctly possible
Having earned a precious first innings lead of 41 after bowling the home side out for 373, the tourists will have the opportunity to apply the kind of pressure under which greater teams than this South African one have buckled.
Resuming on an imposing 144/1 with Graeme Smith on 76 and Hashim Amla on 50, speculation had mounted that the captain would lead his team to a daunting lead. Instead, it was the persistence of Anil Kumble and his spin assistants, Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar, which earned India the lead.
Smith's dismissal in the 10th over of the day was a triumph of both planning and execution for captain Rahul Dravid and Kumble. The South African skipper's propensity to drive on the leg-side is both his strength and weakness and had been responsible for a good portion of the 94 excellent runs he scored. After he had just driven Kumble past short midwicket to the long on boundary, Dravid decided to play Smith at his own game and posted a second catcher in the region at short mid-on. Knowing that the shot is instinctive to Smith, it was Kumble's job to ensure he made him play it again. He did --- and Sehwag held a stinging catch to his right.
Smith's ability to score quickly and bat for long periods is often overlooked because of his ungainly style, but having become the second youngest man to pass 4000 Test runs --- just a year older than Tendulkar and in just three more innings --- his return to form was threatening to take the game away from India.
Smith's departure was quickly followed by that of Amla, his partner in a second wicket stand of 159, who slashed at a wide ball from Sreesanth only to provide Dinesh Karthik with a straightforward catch behind the stumps.
India were forced to wait another 40 overs for their next success, however, as South Africa's two most patient accumulators, Jacques Kallis and Ashwell Prince, united in a stand which repaired the puncture but which did so at such a sluggish pace as to detract from the home side's chances of victory.
It was ended after 83 runs in 40 interminable overs by the most unlikely of partnerships, Tendulkar the bowler and Munaf Patel the fielder. The master batsman was exploding his leg-breaks and top-spinners from the bowlers' footmarks with exceptional control and was loving every minute of it. The part-timer was looking very much front-liner and Kallis was resenting that as much as Tendulkar was enjoying it.
But Kallis' attempt to stamp his authority on the proceedings ended in a fine catch on the deep midwicket boundary by Patel who, hitherto, had resembled a man trying to pick up a live fish every time the ball came his way. He hung on to the one which mattered, though, and Kallis departed for 54.
Prince, whose strengths are limited but patience boundless, was made to toil even harder for his runs than he was in Johannesburg and Durban, where he made 97 and 121. Having scrabbled together 26 from 112 deliveries, he finally chipped a delivery from Kumble onto his leg stump to leave the home side still 154 runs in arrears with half their wickets gone.
Mark Boucher (50) and Shaun Pollock (31) did what they have done for much of the last decade by counter-attacking from the lower order to ensure that the final deficit was far less formidable than it could have been.
Having said that, a couple of Indian wickets early on Friday will undoubtedly lead to a severe case of jitters.
Smith and his team will be heavily criticised anyway if the match is drawn and the series is shared. They will be lambasted and lampooned if they lose --- Dravid and his men will do well to remember that if they have to apply pressure on the last two days.
"I've never seen a wicket like this before in South Africa and I hope I never see one again," Smith moaned after the day's play. "We might as well have been playing at Eden Gardens."
Dravid, perhaps sensing glory, was keen to underplay the strength of the position his team is in. "I haven't seen a pitch like this one in South Africa either," he said. "We have our noses in front and I'm very glad we will be bowling last."