South African fast bowler Morne Morkel grabbed three wickets as India slipped to 149-6 by tea on the opening day of the third Test in Nagpur on Wednesday.
Morkel made up for the absence of his unfit speed partner Dale Steyn to negate India’s initial advantage of batting first on a dusty, dry pitch at the VCA stadium.
Off-spinner Simon Harmer picked up two wickets as the top-ranked tourists began their hunt for a series-levelling win in the four-match series.
The Proteas, who would have batted had they won the toss, removed openers Shikhar Dhawan and Murali Vijay in the morning session which ended with India on 85 for two.
But four wickets fell in the post-lunch period as the batsmen struggled to put bat to ball on a first-day pitch that already shows cracks and continues to deteriorate.
Dhawan and Vijay put on 50 for the first wicket before South Africa hit back to remove both batsmen in the space of 19 runs.
Left-arm spinner Dean Elgar took a low return catch to dismiss Dhawan for 12, before Morkel got rid of the settled Vijay for 40.
Vijay smashed Harmer for the first six of the match and also hit three fours before he was trapped plumb in front of the wicket by a full-length delivery from Morkel.
Cheteshwar Pujara, who was unbeaten on 18 at lunch, added just three more runs after the break before playing back to Harmer to be leg-before.
Ajinkya Rahane brought up India’s 100 with a six off Harmer but his off-stump was sent cartwheeling by Morkel when he reached 13.
Morkel then had skipper Virat Kohli caught behind by Dane Vilas for 22 and Harmer had Rohit Sharma caught at short-leg for two to have the hosts reeling on 125-6.
At tea, Wriddhiman Saha was unbeaten on nine and Ravindra Jadeja was on 21, the pair having added 24 important runs for the seventh wicket.
Earlier, India brought in Amit Mishra to partner Ravichandran Ashwin and Jadeja in a three-man spin attack, and also included Rohit Sharma to bolster the batting.
Mishra and Sharma replaced all-rounder Stuart Binny and fast bowler Varun Aaron.
South Africa also strengthened their spin attack, including Harmer in place of seamer Kyle Abbott.
The tourists, who lost the first Test in Mohali before the rain-hit second game in Bangalore was drawn, need a win to take the series into the decider in New Delhi starting December 3.