Colombo - They had to dig deep, playing well into the long shadows of the early Colombo evening, but the Proteas hung on to stave off defeat in the second Test, and seal a historic series victory on Monday.
It was the first Test series triumph for South Africa in Sri Lanka since Kepler Wessels’s side won in 1993.The 1-0 series win also saw the Proteas reclaim the top Test ranking in the world from Australia, and capped a memorable tour.
All but one man was required to go out to the middle at some stage, though Morné Morkel was ready to step up, skipper Hashim Amla revealed.
“Oh, Morné is a legend! You never want to put him in that situation. You know, he got that first-baller in the first innings, so you don’t really want him to go out there on a pair, and trying to save game as well,” Amla winced. “Yes, he was nervous, but he actually kept reassuring me, saying that he was ready to do whatever the team needed. He’s just a total team player.”
Thankfully, the Proteas No 11 wasn’t needed, as his bowling mates ensured that South Africa ended on 159/8. But the runs didn’t matter on Monday; all that obsessed both teams was the wickets’ column.
The Sri Lankans kept chipping away at the wall of resistance that confronted them from 9:45am on Monday. By 5:45pm, after a day of frustrating rain showers and sunny spells, stoic defence and a magnificent effort by the tenacious Rangana Herath (5/40) and the surprising Dilruwan Perera (3/60), Sri Lanka finally gave up.
Time finally ran out on them and their gallant pursuit.
And yet, when JP Duminy fell with an hour – and just three wickets – left, the away shed would have been understandably twitchy. The Lankans were getting more hysterical with their appeals, and the sun was suddenly shining brilliantly.
“You know, that is the nature of Test cricket here. The game suddenly speeds up late on, and you can have moments where you are cruising, and then the tables turn and you lose a few wickets,” Amla explained.
“There were definitely some nervous moments late on, but credit to Vern, who had a brilliant game all-round. He really is the high-pressure person for us.”
Philander was there at the end, but several of South Africa’s batsmen stood up before him. Amla and AB de Villiers curbed all their natural flair, as they bazzled the cover off anything that fizzed their way. Amla was just about batting on one leg by the time he was snuffed out, the toil of batting for seven hours wearing him down.
Dale Steyn, his face as straight as the bat that he offered in defence for an hour, nibbled away precious seconds, fixing his gloves, taking considerate sips of much-needed refreshment, and then carefully marking out his guard again.
Even Imran Tahir, barely 10 minutes into his late vigil, needed a change of gloves, so as to better grasp the stubborn willow that stood between agony and the ecstasy that greeted South Africa’s latest great escape.
The end bordered on the comical – farcical, the Sri Lankans might argue – as Tahir then appeared to cramp, barely 20 minutes into his late heroics.
It wasn’t pretty, as the Proteas gamely hung on. But they knew, once they had leaked a 421 overdraft in the first innings, it didn’t have to be aesthetically pleasing. It just had to be done, by any means necessary.
“I didn’t think that it was a 400 wicket, but credit must go to Sri Lanka, because they batted well. We also probably gave away too many runs in that first innings,” Amla noted.
“And when we were batting, 13/2 is not the place to make a positive play. It was also tough to get their spinners away, because they bowled well to good fields.”
South Africa’s manner in the second innings was ugly, dour even, but history books leave precious little footnote space for style reviews. Forever they will tell that at the end of a late day in July, Imran Tahir and Vernon Philander held out against the last of a considerable Sri Lankan effort.
“It’s a very pleasing thing, to win this first series as captain,” Amla beamed.
“I have enjoyed it immensely. Obviously, not many touring teams have done it, so I have to give thanks to the team, who have been outstanding,” he explained.
Judging by the manner they summoned him to finish his duties and get to the fines meeting, his team is enjoying Amla’s tenure just as much.