On the stroke of lunch on day three, a brilliant Kagiso Rabada yorker dismissed Murali Vijay. The opener’s 43-run partnership with Virat Kohli had been a vital one. The runs didn’t flow freely but it kept the South Africans at bay and at that moment… on an uncomfortable pitch, it seemed like a lot. By the end of the first session, the hosts had bowled 23.5 overs, conceded 51 runs and claimed three wickets.

In the Indian dressing room, one can imagine the mood would have been a little tense. They were not yet out of the woods and a few quick wickets could put them in a difficult situation. Kohli, on the other hand, had got going again and would have been desperately hoping that someone would stick with him in the middle.

One more big partnership could be the difference between victory and defeat. Within five overs of resumption of play, Kohli had his answer and the man who provided it (at least part of it) was Ajinkya Rahane.

In the morning session, 23.5 overs yielded 51 runs and three wickets. The first five overs after the break saw India score 25 runs without any further loss.

Rahane, despite his failure in the first innings, seemed to settle in on a difficult track without much ado. He took the quick singles, punished the loose balls and showed the kind of intent that Kohli has wanted from his squad all series long.

There was a bit of chatter too — Rahane and Kohli were enjoying the little partnership. When one kept low, Rahane turned around and with a big smile on his face, told Kohli, “4th innings main isse bhi jyaada hoga. (It’ll be worse in the 4th innings).”

Great understanding

Their calling was superb, especially. In a match where runs were hard to come by, quick singles just got both the batsmen going after lunch. There was an urgency to the action in the middle that was just not visible in the first session.

When Rahane did get hit, he grimaced and carried on. He was determined to give the South Africans nothing. It was inspirational to watch his batting on the day. This was batting of the highest quality… at times, it felt like batting on such wickets was second nature to him.

The trick, though, lay in the decisive footwork. Rahane was almost never caught in two minds. Either fully forward or fully back – the same as Kohli.

An interesting statistic illustrates the difference he made: In the first 40 overs of this innings, India played attacking shots to just 10.7% of the deliveries they faced. In the next 40, this figure changed to 33.3%.

Vijay got out in the 41st over. And that is when the mood of the innings changed.

To all those watching the two bat together, this was exactly what India had missed so badly throughout the series. Perhaps, that point would have been even clearer to Kohli from the other end, after all he had the best seat in the house.

During the course of the Indian innings, Kohli answered questions on whether he can play on tricky pitches. Similarly, Rahane answered questions on why he should have been part of the playing XI from the first Test; why he should never have been dropped.

Even after Kohli was dismissed, Rahane continued to show good temperament and application. Hardik Pandya didn’t last long but in Bhuvneshwar Kumar, he found an able ally. Together, they added a further 55 for the seventh wicket.

The wicket was never easy to bat on but Rahane found a way to not just survive — he played handsome strokes and adjusted as well as any batsman could hope to on this pitch. By the time, he was dismissed India had managed to get a very competitive lead; a lead which was further bolstered by Mohammed Shami.

Amidst the controversy surrounding the pitch later in the day, Rahane’s knock might be sidelined but it shouldn’t be.

“My thinking was if I played (well) on this wicket, I could be a hero,” Rahane said at close of play.

Irrespective of how this match ends, he was, very much, a hero; a hero that India have missed.