sports India defeated

India's bowler Ishant Sharma (right) unsuccessfully appealed for the wicket of South Africa's batsman AB de Villiers (not pictured) during the fourth day of the second Test cricket match between South Africa and India at Supersport cricket grounds on Jan. 16 in Centurion, South Africa. (Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images)

CENTURION, South Africa — India crashed to 35-3 in the second test against South Africa Jan. 16, leaving the world’s top-ranked team heading for a first series defeat since 2015.

South Africa quick bowlers Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi blasted through India’s top order at the end of Day 4, a burst that crucially included the wicket of captain Virat Kohli, to leave India still 252 runs short of its victory target.

India was facing a record run chase at Centurion, or the prospect of surviving for an entire day without its best player, to stay alive in the three-test series, which South Africa leads 1-0.

India’s run of nine straight series victories appeared destined to end after South Africa set the tourists a tough target of 287 to win, and then removed openers Murali Vijay and K.L. Rahul and Kohli in the last hour and 45 minutes of the day.

Cheteshwar Pujara was 11 not out for India and after surviving what appeared to be an edge behind off Morne Morkel that the South Africans curiously didn’t appeal for. Parthiv Patel was with him on 5 not out, but encapsulated India’s battered and bruised status in its second innings when he was hit in the midriff by an Ngidi delivery and was left hunched over in pain.

Ngidi, on his test debut, had 2-14 and produced the biggest celebration of the day, and maybe the test, for the South Africans when he trapped Kohli lbw seven overs from the end. Kohli made 153, half of India’s runs, in the first innings.

“It’s massive for us and I think it’s massive for India, knowing he is not batting,” South Africa’s Dean Elgar said. “He’s a very special batsman as we saw in the first innings and we knew it was a massive moment to get him out.”

Although South Africa was in complete control, it took the No. 2-ranked Proteas 3 ½ days to rise to that position on a SuperSport Park pitch that demanded especially hard work from the bowlers.

“I don’t know what they were thinking when they made this wicket,” India seam bowler Ishant Sharma said. “But, OK, whatever it is we have to play on it and the conditions are same for both teams. Tomorrow we will try to win.”

South Africa first wrestled control through a grinding innings by skipper Faf du Plessis, who faced 141 balls over nearly four overs for his 48. That carried South Africa to 258 all out in its second innings and a lead of 286. Du Plessis and Vernon Philander (26 off 85 balls) worked their way through 156 deliveries — 26 overs — in the middle session for a 46-run partnership that pushed South Africa toward relative safety.

Their attritional approach was in response to a burst of three wickets in the first session of the day from India’s Mohamed Shami (4-49) that threatened to leave the game wide open. India collected those three wickets in the space of six overs and for just 19 runs.

At 163-5, du Plessis decided it was time to shut the door and he was at the wicket for another 41 overs to keep India out. He hit just four fours, but that barely mattered for the bigger picture.

Du Plessis was the second last man out for South Africa, dismissed by a one-handed catch by Jasprit Bumrah (3-70) off his own bowling and shortly after he had dropped a similar chance from du Plessis.

By then, South Africa’s lead meant India would need a record fourth-innings score to win.

The highest fourth innings score at Centurion is 251-8 by England in 2000, although that was the discredited test where both teams forfeited innings at the suggestion of the disgraced and late South African captain Hansie Cronje.

A better gauge might be the next best score, 228-9, also by England, in 2009.

So, India’s challenge was daunting even before Rabada and Ngidi sent Vijay, Rahul and Kohli back to the dressing rooms.

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