Many would think that the Virat Kohli-led Indian cricket team are almost certain to go 1-0 up in the 3-match Test series against South Africa after putting themselves in a dominant position at the end of day 4 in the first Test match at Vishakhapatnam.
But making such a prediction is very perilous when South Africa are playing. The Proteas have pulled off many near escapes in the past decade which have established their reputation as one of the grittiest teams in the international Test arena.
In 2012, Faf du Plessis played a marathon innings in his very first Test at Adelaide, supported by an uncharacteristic block-fest from AB de Villiers, to see his team safely to a draw. These two men combined again in December 2013 to almost chase down a 450+ target against India on day 5, eventually settling for a draw.
You may think that both these examples are irrelevant because the pitches on which these two matches were played happened to be flat tracks without much help for spinners. So, let us give you two relevant examples.
In 2014, the South Africans needed to bat out the entire fifth day on a dry and dusty Colombo (SSC) wicket with nine wickets in hand against a Sri Lankan spin attack with Rangana Herath in top form. They did that by seeing off 94 overs while losing seven wickets and earned a series-winning draw.
Next year, in India, at the Feroze Shah Kotla stadium in Delhi, the South Africans were again tasked with playing out the entire fifth day, to add to around half the fourth day, to save the final Test of the series. What followed was an incredible display of defensive batting. Even though they failed to save the Test, The Proteas batted for more than 143 overs in their last innings.
So, the fighting spirit of Faf du Plessis' team cannot be underrated. On top of that, the pitch at Vishakhapatnam is far from the dustbowl that Indian wickets usually are at the end of the game. The biggest challenge at the moment seems to be the odd ball that is keeping low and not the turn, which is quite manageable.
In fact, it is the lack of bounce that got India their first wicket in the second innings – that of Dean Elgar. He was nearly bowled earlier also because of a delivery keeping low. The key for South Africa would be to try and play as much as possible off the front foot and not let these odd deliveries rattle them.
The biggest threat in the fourth innings might be Ravindra Jadeja and not Ravichandran Ashwin. The former bowls flatter and straighter. The Proteas batsmen have shown a tendency to play him off the backfoot. If this continues, the odd ball that skids through or keeps low might cause problems – as happened with the delivery that got Elgar out.
In the end, it would require mental strength from the visitors to play out the final day. With de Villiers and Hashim Amla not in the team, that won't be easy but not impossible also. The way they batted in the first innings suggests the Africans are here to fight hard. India shouldn't celebrate too early.
They should remember how Australia batted out the fifth day for a draw in 2017 at Ranchi and Sri Lanka did the same later that year in Delhi.