India clinched a pride-saving win in the third test against South Africa on Saturday, a victory on a poor and unpredictable pitch that nearly caused the game to be called off, but ultimately gave Virat Kohli's top-ranked team something to take from a tour of discontent.

It was India's pace bowlers leaving a trail of destruction behind them late on the fourth day at the Wanderers as South Africa's batsmen were subdued quickly after showing signs of resistance, most notably with Dean Elgar's body-on-the-line innings of 86 not out.

Chasing a target of 241 — a tough challenge on a cracked surface that left batsmen often guessing, and bruised, and in pain in Elgar's case — South Africa was bowled out for 177.

Mohammed Shami was the fast bowler to deliver the final blows, collecting 5-28 as the South Africans went from 124-1 and in with a chance to all out and finished just 53 runs and 21 overs later. Jasprit Bumrah and Ishant Sharma took two wickets each for India in support of Shami's match-ending spell.

India's win by 63 runs, in conditions at the extreme opposite of what they prefer, avoided an embarrassing 3-0 series whitewash for the No. 1 team in the world. India still lost the series 2-1, but Kohli welcomed the Wanderers win as a sign of hope for a team that has for years struggled on tour on green, fast-bowler friendly pitches. This one was greener and faster than most.

"We saw banners (in the crowd) of whitewash, 3-0 and all that," Kohli said. "So it's really, really sweet to win this game. Massive. This could be a massive milestone for us."

India's troubles with performing outside of subcontinent conditions means it has never won a series in South Africa, and still hasn't, but it's also still never been whitewashed in the country.

That second record appeared under threat when Elgar and Hashim Amla put together a 119-run stand for the second wicket in Johannesburg. They guided the Proteas, first, through a nasty final period on day three when Elgar was hit in the grill of his helmet with a bouncer, causing umpires to take players off for a potentially dangerous pitch.

That moment, less than 20 minutes before the close of play on Friday, threatened to undermine the test, and maybe the series, if the game was abandoned.

But the game resumed on Saturday, as did Elgar after he passed two concussion tests because of the blow on the helmet. He then made 86 not out, taking more hits on the body on the fourth day as he carried his bat through the South African innings in the most trying of circumstances.

"Personally it's a nice achievement but it's very bittersweet," Elgar said. "We lost the test match and I play for wins."

While Elgar was unbowed after being hit on the hip, helmet, and a multitude of times on the fingers during his near six-hour stay, India found a way around his stubbornness by ripping through the batsmen at the other end.

Amla's fall for 52 was crucial, out to a diving catch at short mid-wicket by Hardik Pandya off Sharma. That opened a door for India, and Shami, Sharma and Bumrah charged through it.

AB de Villiers edged to the slips for 6, captain Faf du Plessis was bowled with a big in-swinger for 2, and Quinton de Kock was lbw for a first-ball duck. With the specialist batsmen done for, Shami speared in fast yorkers to bowl Vernon Philander, Andile Phehlukwayo and Morne Morkel.

Substitute wicketkeeper Dinesh Karthik held the catch, confirmed in a DRS review, that sealed India's win.

"We're the No. 1 side in the world and we played like that in this game," Kohli said.

That was likely true but India still failed to win a big series away from home. The South Africa tour also exposed problems that maybe weren't obvious when India was surging to No. 1 in the world off the back of nine straight series wins, eight of them in the subcontinent.

India's team was criticized for turning down the chance to play a warm-up game before the first test in South Africa and curtail its preparations. Questions were constantly raised over strange team selections, including Ajinkya Rahane, one of India's best batsmen in pacey conditions, being left out for the first two tests of the series. He returned to top score in India's second innings at the Wanderers and set up victory.

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