India were in a good position despite being bowled out for 187, Cheteshwar Pujara said after the first day of the third and final Test at the Wanderers Stadium on Wednesday.
In reply, South Africa were six for one at the close.
“It is one of the toughest pitches I have batted on,” said Pujara, who battled for 261 minutes and faced 179 balls in making 50.
“The total we have is as good as scoring 300 on any (other) wicket.”
Indian captain Virat Kohli, who took the bold decision to bat first in overcast conditions on a well-grassed pitch, made 54 in contrasting style to Pujara, dominating a third wicket stand of 84 with his teammate.
He struck nine boundaries in a 106-ball innings.
Pujara admitted that he was unable to match Kohli’s fluency.
“I don’t think any other batsman could bat like that. He’s in form having made a hundred in the last game and he was timing the ball really well.” he said.
He also backed Kohli’s decision to bat first.
“If our bowlers bowl well we have a very good chance,” he said. “This wicket will be very difficult to bat on. The cracks are opening up and a couple of balls are deviating a lot. As the game progresses, we will see uneven bounce so that’s the reason we batted first.”
It took Pujara 54 balls to score his first run on Wednesday.
“You need to take your time, you need to get used to the bounce, get used to the lateral movement,” he said. “It was difficult for me earlier on.”
South Africa picked a five-pronged pace attack, bringing in all-rounder Andile Phehlukwayo for left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj, and the Indian batsmen were under pressure all day on a pitch which offered pace and sideways movement.
Phehlukwayo justified his selection by taking two for 25, including producing the ball that ended Pujara’s dismissal. It seemed Pujara intended to leave a ball which seamed in just enough to catch the edge of his bat and present wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock with one of his five catches.
Phehlukwayo acknowledged that it was a good pitch to bowl on and agreed with Pujara that cracks were opening up.
“One ball really deviated and it will go up and down. It is already going up and down from a length,” he said.
But Phehlukwayo said he expected the South African batsmen to take a positive attitude.
“You have to look to score and get into good positions otherwise there is a ball that has your name on it on that type of wicket. They have a decent enough total but it’s not really par. I think we bowled really well.”
All five bowlers took wickets. Kagiso Rabada took three for 39, while Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander and Phehlukwayo took two apiece. Lungi Ngidi only took one wicket but it was the key one of Kohli, who was caught at third slip by AB de Villiers.
Philander, playing in his 50th Test, took the first wicket when he had Lokesh Rahul caught behind. He bowled a remarkable first spell of one for one in eight overs.
“Vernon showed his class,” said Phehlukwayo. “When I watch him bowl I get goosebumps at times to imagine how consistent a guy can be, (bowling) on a length and moving the ball both ways.”
Two dropped catches and a wicket overturned because of a no-ball hampered South Africa.
Kohli was the beneficiary of both dropped catches. He was put down when he had 11 by Philander off Rabada and on 32 by De Villiers at third slip off Morkel.
De Villiers made amends when he held a sharp chance off Lungi Ngidi to end Kohli’s innings – but South Africa’s star batsman did not field after tea while receiving ice treatment on a bruised right middle finger suffered when he held the catch.
Philander was denied a wicket when Ajinkya Rahane, on three, edged him to De Kock, only to get a reprieve when replays showed he had over-stepped the bowling crease.