But by the time the new ball was due, a rejuvenated Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis, the captain, had moved the scoreboard on to 245 for 3, despite AB de Villiers, another of the local heroes, making just 20 before playing on off Ishant Sharma. For all Ashwin’s indefatigable effort and some miserly bowling from Ishant, the hosts were well on top.
Then, they decided to chance a single off Hardik Pandya. He rushed to gather, swivelled and threw down the stumps at the bowler’s end with Amla short of the crease. He had made a typically classy 82, playing himself into form after a nervy start.
Two balls later, Quinton de Kock (0) edged to Virat Kohli at slip to give Ashwin his third wicket of the day. And when Vernon Philander was run out, haring down the pitch after popping one up on the leg side off the alert Pandya, South Africa had slumped to 251 for 6. Through sheer persistence, India had made the pendulum swing back.
“Obviously bitterly disappointed,” said Markram of his 94. “It’s now the second time in a short career [he made 97 on debut against Bangladesh], but I’m just going to keep saying it’s part of the game and try to be positive.”
His disappointment was partly assuaged by praise from Kohli. “He is a massive competitor as everyone sees on the TV, but it’s great to see that he has got good values that people off the field might not see,” said Markram. “It was a great gesture and it meant a lot.”
He admitted to being surprised by an almost-Asian surface where he and Dean Elgar, who made 31 before being caught at silly point off Ashwin, eked out just 78 in the first session. But he also doffed his cap to Ashwin, who bowled 31 overs for his 3 for 90.
“He is difficult to face on a flat wicket, but he still had to bowl well,” he said. “You need to give him some credit. It will be interesting to see if the pitch will continue to spin like it did.”
Ashwin, who endured one of the worst spells of his career in Johannesburg in 2013, when he failed to take a wicket in the fourth innings – “It was a reality check in terms of not being able to win a Test match for the country on day five when all things were actually set up for a spinner. It was kind of a hit on my professional pride,” he said – was just glad to have kept India in the contest.
“It could have so easily been a game where they could have run away with it after the second session,” he said. I’d like to believe I was just dogged enough. I think my experience of going to England and playing at New Road (Worcestershire) helped, because this has been that sort of wicket.”