Ajinkya Rahane (89 batting) led a spirited fightback as hosts India battled their way to 231 for seven wickets after off-spinner Dane Piedt struck crucial blows for South Africa on the opening day of their fourth and final cricket Test at the Ferozeshah Kotla Stadium in Delhi on Thursday.
Piedt, playing only his second Test and the first in this series, bowled well on the slow pitch to return figures of 4/101. Pacer Kyle Abbott also did well, claiming the wicket of the in-form Cheteshwar Pujara, Wriddhiman Saha and Ravindra Jadeja for figures of 3/23.
India could have been in more trouble but for South Africa captain Hashim Amla, who dropped Rohit Sharma and Rahane while fielding in the slips.
Rahane stood tall among the ruins even as wickets fell at regular intervals at the other end. Dropped by Amla while batting on 78, he made full use of the reprieve to be unbeaten on 89 with nine boundaries and a couple of sixes.
This was Rahane’s eighth half-century in Test cricket.
He was involved in two crucial partnerships — a 70-run stand with captain Virat Kohli and a 61-run duet with Ravindra Jadeja (24) — to help the hosts reach a respectable position at stumps.
Kohli (44) and opener Shikhar Dhawan (33) also batted well before being dismissed by Piedt.
Struggling at 139/6 going into the tea break, the Indians made a recovery of sorts in the final session of the day, putting on 92 runs for the loss of Jadeja’s wicket.
Ravichandran Ashwin was batting on six at the other end when bad light forced the umpires to draw stumps.
Opting to bat after winning the toss, India were off to a slow start with South African pacers Morne Morkel and Abbott keeping a tight line.
Indian openers Murali Vijay and Dhawan struggled to negotiate the nagging line and length, inching their way to 29 in the first 15 overs.
Vijay was lucky to get a reprieve on a personal score of 10 when he nicked an outgoing delivery from Abott to AB de Villiers at second slip which was adjudged to be a no-ball.
Vijay suffered a nasty blow when he was surprised by the extra bounce of an Abbott delivery. The ball reared up from around the good length spot and brushed the Tamil Nadu batsman’s gloves before hitting Vijay on the abdomen.
Piedt gave the visitors the breakthrough when Vijay edged one to Amla in the slips.
Dhawan, who has struggled throughout the series, was in much better form on the day. The left-hander hit four boundaries, including an elegant drive through the covers off Morkel.
Pujara, one of the most successful Indian batsmen in this series, continued his fine form at the other end. A bit cautious at the start of his knock, Pujara grew more confident as the innings wore on, smashing a full toss from leg-spinner Imran Tahir for a six in the last over before lunch.
The Proteas struck decisive blows almost immediately after lunch, removing Dhawan and Pujara in consecutive overs.
Piedt trapped Dhawan leg before with one that turned sharply before hitting the Delhi batsman on his pads in front of off and middle.
Pujara, who seemed set for a big knock, was sent back to the pavilion in the very next over by a superb delivery from Abbott. The South African pacer produced an incoming delivery from a fullish length which pierced the gap between bat and pad before hitting the off-stump.
Kohli and Rahane then came together to try and steady the boat. The duo were aided by the slow turn of the pitch which allowed them to adjust and play their shots.
It was Piedt who again struck a crucial blow for the visitors when he sent Kohli back to the pavilion. Kohli produced a powerful sweep which hit Temba Bavuma at short leg and went up in the air. Wickekeeper Dane Vilas came rushing from behind the stumps and dived to make the catch.
Abbott was unlucky not to dismiss Rohit Sharma when the Mumbai batsman — who was yet to open his account at the time — edged an outgoing delivery which was dropped by Amla in the slips.
But the Proteas did not have to wait too long for their next wicket as in the very next ball that he faced, Rohit hit a skier off Piedt to Tahir at long on.
Abbott struck with the final ball before the tea break, reversing the ball into Wriddhiman Saha. The Indian wicketkeeper was beaten by the pace and movement as the ball pierced his defence before taking out the stumps.
Later, Jadeja joined hands with Rahane to drive India’s recovery.
Brief scores: 231/7 in 84 overs (Ajinkya Rahane 89 batting, Virat Kohli 44, Shikhar Dhawan 33, Dane Piedt 4/101, Kyle Abbott 3/23)