It's so tough batting at the Wanderers that only one South African batsman got into double figures, and not without a fight. Hashim Amla had to adjust his technique, shuffle across his stumps to minimise the probability of being dismissed lbw, and he survived three reviews and a blow to the ribs in compiling 61 runs in a mixture of fortune and finesse. And while it's true that Amla held South Africa's innings together, he did not do it on his own.
Two South African bowlers also got into double figures and their efforts cannot be put down to luck. Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander dragged South Africa to a slender advantage on a surface that is smouldering for batsmen on both sides. Between them, Rabada and Philander spent more time at the crease (205 minutes) than all South Africa's other batsmen put together aside from Amla (152 minutes), and faced more balls.
Ordinarily, that might be put down to circumstance, things like an old ball, tired bowlers, the opposition losing focus, a flattening pitch. Not this time. The pair were in the thick of things, against a swinging ball, lively bowling, an Indian attack that sensed an opportunity to get their own back, and a pitch that is not becoming any easier to bat on with cracks widening and uneven bounce.
Rabada batted from the third over, when Aiden Markram was dismissed on the first evening. The first ball he faced swung away from him, the second moved in and struck him high on the pad and he still had to face eight more before he the day was done. Rabada's job, however, was not.
Technically, if Rabada only lasted a few minutes on the second morning, no one would have had too much to say. Realistically, after Bhuvneshwar Kumar delivered an opening over that squared Dean Elgar up once and beat him four times with seam movement away, if Rabada had hung his bat out and edged, no one would have had too much to say. But Rabada was made of sterner stuff.
He watched an Ishant Sharma ball whistle past him and knew that he couldn't quite catch its tune. He watched another pitch outside leg and then pass over middle and off. Maybe he didn't watch that as such. Maybe it just caught the corner of his eye. He watched a third aimed at his off stump and got his bat down in time to keep it out, but then watched the ball take the edge and zoot past third man. He probably watched his own chest rise and fall as his heart beat faster knowing he was still there. And it would not have slowed down.
Rabada was beaten three more times in an over by Ishant before he was able to leave with some certainty but there was never a stage of his innings where he was allowed to settled. Ishant continued to beat him, even with an offbreak on one occasion, before Bhuvneshwar tested him with a fuller length. The slip cordon predicted Rabada would not last long. They were wrong. Somehow, he batted until 11.53, seven minutes before lunch, taking his total time in the middle to two hours and 10 minutes. That's more than a session. And in that time, Rabada played four of the best shots by anyone across the last two days - a flick off the pads, a strong square drive, a whip through midwicket and a loft over extra cover. Even Amla was impressed.
"He doesn't bat for as long as that ever, so he got to a time where he was like, 'What do I do now?'" Amla said when asked if some of Rabada's classier shots were influenced by him. "On a wicket like this, an element of fortune comes in and there are plays and misses all the time. We saw a few flair shots towards the end there. He had good intensity. If there was a bad ball, he tried to hit it."
Exactly the same can be said of Philander, and we should hardly be surprised. With seven Tests fifties to his name, Philander has done enough to be considered an allrounder. He pulled the third ball he faced - a bouncer meant for his chest, delivered by the bowler that had beaten his captain for pace, for four.
Philander played with more intent than Rabada and, in so doing, dispelled some of the recent discontent that had been swirling around him. Despite being exceptionally skillful in his execution of seam movement, Philander has been criticised for the fitness concerns that became particularly problematic in England, when he fell ill at The Oval and then missed the deciding Test in Manchester with back spasms.
Then, Graeme Smith said that unless Philander concentrated on his conditioning, his career would be in danger of waning fast. Today, Smith, gave Philander the highest praise when he compared his back-and-across to Jacques Kallis'. "I saw the comparison with Jacques Kallis on the screen, and we do call him 'Woogie' [Kallis' nickname]," Amla said. "He prizes his wicket and he has matured into a good batsman."
Philander's most eyecatching stroke was the high-elbowed back-foot drive but his best moment was two overs' earlier, when he was struck on the glove. Philander required on-field treatment and carried on; the Philander who had been in Smith's firing line might have required more assistance, maybe not even carried on. This Philander, the Philander playing in his 50th Test, had the right kind of guts and played an innings of great value for his team.
Ultimately, Rabada and Philander's runs may be needed as much as what they might do next. India are already 42 runs ahead and have already had lower-order efforts of their own. Though India don't know what a safe target to set may be, given that neither side has topped 200, anything much more would be a tough ask. Amla remained positive but if South Africa are to chase something more significant, he will need a lot more help to get there. "It's evenly poised. Anything can happen tomorrow morning. Even if we have to chase 300, that's fine, we are going to do our best to get there," he said.