In their final innings of a long and wretched series, South Africa's batsmen produced their most unyielding display, responding with dour defence in the face of a mountainous fourth-innings task. Hashim Amla was at the forefront of their defiance, playing the slowest innings of 200 balls or more in the history of Test cricket*, but South Africa's job, notwithstanding their captain's monumental effort, was less than half done.
India declared half an hour from lunch, after Ajinkya Rahane had become the fifth Indian batsman to score twin tons in a Test match, setting a target of 481 with just over five sessions remaining. At stumps on day four, South Africa had only lost two wickets while eating up 72 overs. They only scored 72 in that time, but it hardly mattered to them: South Africa were batting time, and runs were simply not on their minds.
At stumps, Amla was batting on 23 off 207 balls and with him was AB de Villiers, on 11 off 91. Their third-wicket partnership was worth 23 off 29.2 overs. Before that, Amla and Temba Bavuma had put on 44 in 38.4 overs.
South Africa began their fourth innings with a possible 158 overs remaining in the match. Given the sheer amount of time left, a draw seemed out of question, but South Africa have shown themselves capable -in Adelaide three years ago and in Colombo last year - of defying that sort of logic. South Africa's batting has been far from its best during this series, but they kept faith in their ability - unique in this era - to bat long without thinking of runs.
They had five overs to see out before lunch, and did not survive that period unscathed. R Ashwin looped one up to Dean Elgar from around the wicket, drifting it into the left-hander and getting it to leave him from a middle-stump line. Elgar didn't reach the pitch while trying to drive straight, and Rahane took a comfortable catch at slip.
In walked Amla. It took him 46 balls to get off the mark, and the first runs were unintentional, his back-foot defensive stroke off Ravindra Jadeja squirting away into the fine leg region. Bavuma, blocking with comparable single-mindedness at the other end was on 8 off 50 balls when Ashwin sent down a rare half-tracker - possibly slipped in deliberately to break the batsman's rhythm - that left him with almost no option but to pull for six.
The overs ran by quickly, hypnotically, and the close-in cordon grew in strength. It was fascinating to watch. South Africa, perhaps, were making things more difficult for themselves by contributing to India's rapid over rate and leaving themselves more overs to face. When their innings began, 68 overs remained from the 90 scheduled for the day; India bowled 72.
And while neither batsman was making too many mistakes - their control percentages hovered in the low-to-mid-90s - every little mistake was amplified by the presence of four, sometimes five, fielders around the bat at all times.
Between lunch and tea, the edges weren't finding fielders though. Amla came forward to defend Jadeja, and nicked him between first and second slip. Ishant Sharma, replacing Ashwin in the 28th over, found Bavuma's edge twice in the second over of his spell, and the ball streaked through the slips on both occasions.
By tea, India had bowled 22 maidens in 39 overs, and had only one wicket to show for it. It took a ball of great beauty from their best bowler, Ashwin, to finally break the stand in the fourth over of the final session. It drifted away slightly from Bavuma's off stump, and hit it as he played for more turn than there was. The length was key, punishing the batsman for his lack of a front-foot stride.
The pitch seemed to have slowed down slightly, but the batsmen were still being tested, forced to stay vigilant every ball. Ashwin continued to confound with his flight, and slipped in the odd legbreak for variety. Jadeja got a couple to turn sharply past de Villiers' edge. Umesh Yadav got one to lift from a length and smack Amla's left glove. It was, perhaps, the moment that best summed up Amla's impregnability: his hands were as close to his body as possible, and they cushioned the impact of the ball to make it drop right next to his feet.
Amla and de Villiers had been at the crease for 62 balls without scoring a run, when Kohli decided to shake things up by bringing on his part-timers. Shikhar Dhawan sent down two wide full-tosses in his first over, and Amla had no option but to smash them to the cover-point boundary, but in between he got one to spit up from a length. Amla was fully stretched out in defence, his head over the ball and his bat face almost parallel with the ground, when the ball popped up off his glove and over Cheteshwar Pujara at silly point. Pujara spun around and dived full-length, but could only get his fingertips to the ball. It was barely a half-chance, but also the only chance India would get during the partnership.
In the morning, Rahane shifted gears effortlessly as India resumed 403 ahead, looking for quick runs. On day three, he had scored 52 off 152 balls, shutting South Africa out of the contest in a display of cool professionalism in the company of Virat Kohli. On the fourth morning, Rahane made 48 off 54 balls.
The only major change in his batting was a willingness to go after anything remotely wide of the stumps. He picked up two fours and a six in the first four overs of the morning, all in the arc between third man and deep cover, the pick of them a perfectly timed ramp over the slips off Morne Morkel.
Kohli, who began the day on 83, only added five to his overnight score before he was lbw to a ball from Kyle Abbott that crept through at shin height. It didn't hamper India's scoring rate as Rahane and Wriddhiman Saha kept playing their shots. Rahane raced through the 80s with sixes in successive overs off Imran Tahir and Dean Elgar, and Saha used his bottom hand to telling effect in swiping three fours in two overs.
The declaration was just around the corner. Tahir bowled one full at Rahane's pads, and he clipped it away through the leg side to bring up a hundred that he barely celebrated, raising his arms momentarily before walking off towards the dressing room. It was an understated reaction to an outstanding achievement. Among Indian batsmen, only Vijay Hazare, Sunil Gavaskar (three times), Rahul Dravid (twice) and Kohli had made hundreds in both innings of a Test match before Rahane.