CAPE TOWN, Jan 4 (IANS): Sachin Tendulkar gave a master class in technique and temperament, bringing up his 51st Test century, against Dale Steyn's perfect exhibition of swing bowling as the engrossing third day's play left the series-deciding Third Test between India and South Africa hanging in balance.
Tendulkar scored 146, denying Steyn (5-75) for more than two session, and sharing 176 runs with Gautam Gambhir (93) for the third wicket, 76 with Harbhajan Singh (40) for the seventh, 18 runs with Zaheer Khan (23) for the eighth to guide India to 364 in reply to South Africa's first innings total of 362.
At stumps, South Africa were 52 for two with Harbhajan Singh striking late to dismiss captain Graeme Smith (29) and nightwatchman Paul Harris (0). The hosts lead by 50 runs, but with no clear advantage to either side. The way the contest has edded and flowed, the next two days holds promise. Alviro Petersen (22) and Hashim Amla (0) were at the crease.
It was almost a clash between Tendulkar and Steyn on a grueling day's play.
In the morning, Tendulkar and Gambhir endured ferocious fast bowling from Steyn and Morne Morkel (2-106) to steer India to 237 for four at lunch.
The first over itself set the tone of day's play as Steyn troubled Tendulkar with his outswingers. After surviving four balls, including a caught behind shout in the second, Tendulkar leaned forward for a beautiful copy-book cover drive.
Steyn bowled with pace, getting movement and getting past Tendulkar's bat with regularity.
Steyn kept the tempo, bowling fuller length and getting the ball to shape out beautifully, teasing the batsmen to play at it. The Indian maestro squeezed every bit of his vast experience, showing patience to hung on and drove with confidence whenever Steyn slightly erred in length.
Having troubled Gambhir in the series with his steep bouncers, Morkel, at the other end, bowled at furious pace and kept the left-hander on his toes. Gambhir fended off resolutely, but never wavered. The two had their share of fortune, one needs in such conditions and against high quality bowling, when some edges flew past the slip cordon, but by and large they tackled the quicks with conviction.
Left-arm pacer, Lonwabo Tsotosbe, inspired by the bowling of the other two, tested Tendulkar with some good short balls. But Tendulkar humbled him with two cracking fours off successive balls. The first was disdainfully pulled to the midwicket fence and the next was a sweetly-timed cut over backward point.
After Tendulkar and Gambhir rose over the tide, the latter was out to Harris, edging to wicketkeeper Mark Boucher. Gambhir hit 13 fours in his 223-ball and 318-minute vigil.
V.V.S Laxman, after hitting three fours, was unlucky to be run out when Harris tried to stop a Tendulkar scorcher, and the ball hit the stumps at the non-strikers end with Laxman out of the crease.
Steyn and Morkel bowled two overs with the second new ball before lunch, the intensity and sharpness back in their spells.
After lunch, Steyn bowled sensational five overs sucking in Cheteshwar Pujara and captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni.
Steyn dismissed Pujara lbw in the very first over of the second session with an unplayable delivery that moved from the leg stump and completely squared up the youngster, hitting him right on his front pad. Dhoni fell in Steyn's next over, caught by Ashwell Prince in slip.
What unfolded next was beyond comprehension as Steyn produced stunners relentlessly; perfect outswingers that curled in and out and looked too good to miss the outside edge of the bat.
Tendulkar stood admiring and surviving Steyn's banana-swingers with his sound technique and also a bit of fortune. But when the moment presented itself, the Indian maestro moved his blade to show his class.
Tendulkar, who struck 17 fours, brought up the century when he hit Morkel a top-edge six while going for the hook.
Harbhajan, with two Test centuries against his name, survived some anxious moments but gave company to Tendulkar.
After the new ball lost its shine, Tendulkar and Harbhajan steadied the Indian innings.
After tea, Steyn came back to dismiss Harbhajan who hit three fours and two six in his inimitable style.
Tendulkar's brilliant knock finally ended when Morkel rattled his stumps. He played 314 balls and occupied the crease for 465 minutes.
Zaheer then added crucial 23 runs, hitting two sixes and along with Ishant Sharma (4) just about managed to take India cross the first innings total of South Africa.