Control and clarity stand out in Rishabh Pant's personality-defining Newlands century
Ten members of India's batting line-up scored 70 runs between them, off 275 balls. These ten included Virat Kohli, who faced 143 balls and scored 29.
You could see why it was such a struggle, because it was never quite clear what halfway safe routes of run-scoring were available on this third-day track from which South Africa's four-pronged pace attack was able to extract both movement and disconcerting bounce on a regular basis. Even Kohli, who had faced 201 balls in the first innings and scored 79, had only shown he could survive. Run-scoring was another matter entirely.
On this track and against the same bowlers, the other member of India's line-up scored an undefeated 100 off 139 balls. Rishabh Pant was batting on the same pitch and against the same bowlers, but it's possible he was batting in a parallel universe.
Pant's control percentage eventually dropped to 83%, given the demands of batting with the tail and trying to manufacture boundaries with nearly every fielder in the deep, but until the time India lost their seventh wicket, he had faced 95 balls and played only eight false shots. He had shown this sort of control while breezing along at a strike rate of nearly 79.
There are other cricketers, and there is Rishabh Pant.
He'd come into this game with the spotlight trained on him following his dismissal for a duck in the second innings of the second Test in Johannesburg. Criticism of his charge-and-swipe at Kagiso Rabada had spanned a wide spectrum, and Cricday had wondered if the shot had stemmed from Pant lacking confidence in his defensive game against an angle of attack - right-arm over - that has troubled him constantly over the last few months.
Pant's innings on Thursday featured no such lack of confidence. He's incapable of looking anything but nonchalant, of course, but any hypothetical lack of trust in his defensive game also seemed to have vanished.
Roughly midway through his innings, the broadcasters showed a beehive plot of his responses to South Africa's fast bowlers. He had defended most of the balls clustered in the zone around the top of off stump, left his fair share of deliveries outside off stump, and attacked most of the rest. Pant, of course, is never going to leave as many balls as Kohli has in this Test match, but what stood out was the clear demarcation between those zones, suggesting how well he was judging lines and lengths.
This clarity of judgment and decision-making stood out right from the start of Pant's innings. He didn't chase at balls angling away from his reach, and avoided driving on the up, but he pounced on the short ball whenever it came.
The first two boundaries he hit gave shape to his innings. Rabada was coming towards the end of a breathtaking morning spell, in which he'd dismissed Ajinkya Rahane with an unplayable delivery for the second time in the match. He delivered a good short ball to Pant, angling across him and climbing over his back shoulder; it's never easy to control the pull from there, but Pant did so with a sort of swatting motion, hitting the ball well in front of square. Then Rabada bowled one that angled a touch too far across, and Pant climbed on top of the bounce and slapped the ball through cover point.
While Kohli's first-innings knock was masterful in many ways, it wasn't free-scoring, and Sanjay Manjrekar had observed that his run-scoring may have been curtailed by a lack of back-foot scoring options. No such criticism could be made of Pant's innings.
The early pull also made South Africa push deep square leg back, and this gave him a means of rotating strike whenever the bowlers erred marginally straight.
Leg-side clips and nudges are a lifeblood for left-hand batters, of course, and Pant's left-handedness perhaps gave him a small but significant advantage over his team-mates in this innings. The angles are entirely different, and bowlers are bound to err in line ever so slightly more often. Thirty-five of Pant's runs came via singles, twos and threes on the leg side.
The busyness was as responsible as the boundary-hitting for the early pace of Pant's innings. He'd reached 36 off 41 and almost seen India through to lunch when South Africa became resigned to bringing on their left-arm spinner.
Keshav Maharaj had three fielders on the leg-side boundary as soon as he came on, but it was only going to be a matter of time before Pant took them on. In the penultimate over before lunch, he stepped out, didn't quite reach the pitch of the ball, and almost swung himself off his feet, but made sweet enough contact to clear long-on.
South Africa persisted with Maharaj after lunch, and he got through two quiet overs before Pant got hold of him, clearing the boundary twice in succession with a one-handed sweep and a drive over mid-off.
Pant was taking risks against Maharaj with India's lead still far from match-winning, but they were calculated risks buttressed by the uniquely Pantian cricketing logic that has characterised all his best knocks - even in extreme cases such as in Chennai last year, when he decided that the best way to deal with Jack Leach's turn and bounce out of the rough was to step out and try to hit him for sixes. Much of the criticism of Pant's shot against Rabada in Johannesburg stemmed from the idea that that shot, at that stage of his innings, fell outside the scope of even Pantian logic.
At the end of that Maharaj over, India were 151 for 4, effectively 164 for 4, and seemed to be on course to set a target upwards of 250. But a combination of South Africa's bowling, India's long tail, and at least two loose shots from the lower order ensured that wasn't to be.
Pant made sure they still set a challenging target, however, bringing out the party tricks that the transformed match situation demanded. A front-foot baseball swat off a short-of-length ball from Duanne Olivier, landing on the boundary cushion at wide long-on. A flailing slash that caused his bat to slip out of his hand and travel nearly as far as the ball did, in the opposite direction. An attempted reverse-sweep that left him flat on his backside. An overhead helicopter flick to retain the strike. A scampered double while running perpendicular to the pitch.
These are the Pant moments that will live longest in the memory, and go on to characterise him as a batter and a personality. As they should. But he's a wicketkeeper who's scored Test hundreds in England, Australia and South Africa, and he has built that record primarily on the back of the other bits of his game, the bits that don't get spoken about quite as much.