CAPE TOWN // Back in 1997, Sachin Tendulkar made a sublime 169 in the shadow of Table Mountain in a match that India eventually lost by 282 runs. All these years later, he made 146 yesterday against an attack headlined by Dale Steyn, whose spell of swing bowling was as good as any you'll ever see.
With 10 minutes to go for stumps on a riveting day, South Africa had again edged ahead, with the openers negotiating a tricky passage of play against the new ball.
But with Harbhajan Singh trapping Graeme Smith in front on the back foot and Paul Harris, the nightwatchman, bizarrely offering no shot to one that turned sharply back in, it was evident that there would be many more twists in this cricketing clash of the titans.
Steyn against Tendulkar more than lived up to its billing. Time after time, Steyn beat the bat with perfectly pitched outswingers. Tendulkar defended, left a few and was lucky to escape others that whizzed past the edge. At one stage, Steyn's frustration was so acute he came down the pitch and said: "I'm going to knock your ... head off, Sachin."
Gautam Gambhir edged more than he middled in that early passage of play, but once the Steyn tempest blew out, India accumulated runs more quickly.
The stand was worth 176 by the time South Africa broke through, with Harris getting extra bounce to take the edge of Gambhir's bat. By then, Gambhir's determination had kept South Africa at bay for 318 minutes and taken him to 93.
India's chances of edging in front took a further hit on the stroke of lunch when VVS Laxman was unfortunately run out as Harris's hand deflected a powerful drive from Tendulkar on to the stumps.
After the break, Steyn got the wickets that his efforts deserved. Cheteshwar Pujara got an unplayable delivery that pitched on leg and swung to strike him in front of middle, while MS Dhoni could only edge another pacy outswinger.
By then, Tendulkar had raised his 51st century. Still 115 in arrears, India needed a sting from the tale and they found it in the shape of Harbhajan Singh, who hit 40.
He and Tendulkar added 76 and it was only after tea that Steyn broke the partnership, with Harbhajan miscuing a pull to square-leg. Zaheer Khan was greeted with a bouncer that struck the helmet, but he wouldn't be cowed as India edged towards a lead.
It was Morkel, disappointing for much of the day, that landed the big fish, getting one to straighten and clip the top of Tendulkar's off stump. By then, he had faced 314 balls in nearly eight hours.
"It was a great day for Test cricket," said Harbhajan afterwards. "Sachin made another brilliant hundred. Steyn was unbelievable, swinging the ball from leg to off. You can't ask for more from a day's cricket."
Steyn was circumspect about his team's chances of forcing a win, saying: "We want to get into a position where we can't lose the game. It was fulfilling [to get five wickets] because Kallis wasn't out there to bowl for us. To bowl 30 overs in that heat was tough. The job's only halfway done though."
Muscle strain or not, Kallis will be needed on day four, as this unofficial world championship edges towards a thrilling climax.
India, 1st Innings (overnight 142-2):
Gautam Gambhir c Boucher b Harris 93
Virender Sehwag c Smith b Steyn 13
Rahul Dravid run out (De Villiers) 5
Sachin Tendulkar b Morkel 146
VVS Laxman run out (Harris) 15
Cheteshwar Pujara lbw b Steyn 2
Mahendra Singh Dhoni c Prince b Steyn 0
Harbhajan Singh c sub (JP Duminy) b Steyn 40
Zaheer Khan c Prince b Morkel 23
Ishant Sharma c Boucher b Steyn 1
Shanthakumaran Sreesanth not out 4
Extras: (20lb, 1w, 1nb) 22
TOTAL: (all out, 117.1 overs) 364
Fall of wickets: 1-19, 2-28, 3-204, 4-235, 5-237, 6-247, 7-323, 8-341, 9-350, 10-364.
Bowling: Dale Steyn 31-11-75-5, Morne Morkel 29.1-7-106-2 (1nb, 1w), Lonwabo Tsotsobe 26-5-82-0, Paul Harris 29-8-72-1, Alviro Petersen 2-0-9-0.
South Africa, 2nd Innings
Graeme Smith lbw b Harbhajan 29
Alviro Petersen not out 22
Paul Harris lbw b Harbhajan 0
Hashim Amla not out 0
Extras: (1nb) 1
TOTAL: (for 2 wickets, 16 overs) 52
Fall of wickets: 1-50, 2-52.
Still to bat: Jacques Kallis, AB de Villiers, Ashwell Prince, Mark Boucher, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Lonwabo Tsotsobe.
Bowling: Zaheer Khan 5-0-25-0 (1nb), Shanthakumaran Sreesanth 5-1-20-0, Ishant Sharma 3-0-3-0, Harbhajan Singh 3-0-4-2.