South Africa were already on the backfoot heading into day 3 after the top three failed. Faf du Plessis showed some aggression for his fifty but Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja continued to make inroads. At 162/8, fans at the MCA stadium were wondering whether the Proteas could overhaul Virat Kohli's individual score. However, Keshav Maharaj and Vernon Philander showed the top order the way forward on this pitch. Applying themselves rigrously and pouncing on scoring opportunities, Maharaj and Philander shared a record 109-run stand for the ninth wicket as India's inability to run through the tail came back to haunt them. However, Ashwin snapped Maharaj for 72 and when one extra over was bowled due to India's quick over-rate, the offspinner trapped Rabada in front to give India a 326-run lead heading into the fourth day of the Pune Test.
The story of South Africa's batting in the two Tests so far has been punctuated by top order failures followed by spirited partnerships by the tail. In Vizag, Senuran Muthusamy and Dane Piedt had shared a 91-run stand to help South Africa avoid total humiliation. In Pune, it was Maharaj and Philander who helped the Proteas achieve some respectability after yet another top order failing.
Mohammed Shami and Umesh Yadav continued from where they left off on the previous day, with Anrich Nortje falling to Shami and Umesh accounting for Thenuis de Bruyn for 30. With half the side back in the pavillion, skipper Faf du Plessis looked to hold one end up. Quinton de Kock had other ideas and he proceeded to target the spinners. The duo scored quickly, with de Kock in particular smashing seven fours in his knock. The 75-run stand ended when Ashwin produced a magical delivery that drifted in and spun away slightly to clip the top of off stump.
Du Plessis signalled his intention with a six off Jadeja and he smashed his 21st fifty. But, the spinners continued to spin a web around the South Africa batting. Jadeja dismissed Muthusamy for 7 while Ashwin got the big wicket of du Plessis for 64. That was when Maharaj and Philander buckled down and showed the fight that had yielded them past success.
Philander was content on blocking everything and wearing the bowlers down while Maharaj looked the more attacking and composed of the duo. Philander got going with two fours off Ashwin but Maharaj negotiated the reverse swing of Shami and the guile of Jadeja expertly. In the post-day interview, Maharaj would reveal that he wanted to stay outside off stump to spin and legside of the ball for Jadeja. Maharaj withstood the reverse swing of Shami as both players got their eye in and also safely negotiated the new ball.
With two fours off Ashwin, Maharaj notched up his maiden fifty and the confidence rubbed off on Philander, who crunched a drive off Umesh to stretch the partnership past 100. The stand had ensured that India would not get a chance to enforce the follow-on or bat on day 3 itself but any chances of reducing a deficit below 300 was dealt a blow when Ashwin got Maharaj through a strangle on leg stump. Maharaj danced down the track and looked to flick a slow, flighted delivery but ended up hitting it straight to leg slip.
The approach by Maharaj and Philander will be much needed for South Africa if they are to hold off for a draw. Whether India will enforce the follow-on or not remains to be seen on day 4. Looking at how the bowlers have had to work hard for their wickets, Kohli might be tempted to bat again and give his bowlers some rest as they look to cope with the punishing schedule of three back-to-back Tests.