Quinton de Kock spared the Proteas some blushes on the first day with a typically effervescent innings in the second Test against Sri Lanka at St George’s Park in Port Elizabeth.
De Kock, Aiden Markram and to a lesser extent Kagiso Rabada aside, Thursday was another desperate effort by the Proteas batsmen on a pitch with some seam movement, but nothing that should have led to two mini-collapses – one at the start of the day and another in the middle session.
Faf du Plessis had won the toss, with the hosts making one change to the side that lost so dramatically at Kingsmead last Saturday, with Wiaan Mulder making his debut in place of the injured Vernon Philander.
A like-for-like replacement, but whether it was the one the Proteas should have made is a matter that will only become clearer in the next few days.
The batting needs shoring up, and leaving out both Theunis de Bruyn and Zubayr Hamza – with the latter released from the squad to play One-Day Cup cricket for the Cape Cobras – has again left the balance of the starting side out of sync.
It’s one thing when the batting is operating properly to only use six front-line batsmen, quite another when it’s not, as has been the case with the Proteas for the last two seasons.
Du Plessis had barely completed his duties at the toss, when he was back in the middle batting as South Africa slumped to 15/3 by the seventh over.
Dean Elgar and Hashim Amla were both bowled by left-arm paceman Vishwa Fernando, while Temba Bavuma – batting at No 4 – was run out attempting a single that was never on.
Aiden Markram and the South African captain set about a rescue mission by adding 58 for the fourth wicket, with Markram – as he has done a couple of times this season – unfurling some excellent shots, most memorably back-foot drives through the cover region.
Du Plessis was workmanlike in making his way to 25, and then just as in the first innings at Kingsmead, was dismissed in the over before lunch, bowled this time by opposite number Dimuth Karunaratne.
There followed a breezy 40 minutes after lunch as De Kock and Markram counter-punched, adding 57 runs for the fifth wicket, with Markram registering a sixth Test century.
His wicket in the 38th over started the second mini-collapse of the innings, with South Africa losing three wickets for 27 runs in 29 balls, all the wickets falling to the lanky right-armer Kasun Rajitha.
Markram scored 60 and was trapped lbw, a decision confirmed by the television official after a request from the batsman.
Mulder hit a pair of nice boundaries in his first Test innings, but was also trapped lbw by a delivery slanting into him, while Keshav Maharaj was undone by one that moved away.
Kagiso Rabada lent De Kock some much needed support as the hosts sought respectability.
Edged & wicket. The last one goes, Fernando, coming around the wicket gets his 3rd. Olivier is out for a duck. South Africa are all out for 222.— Cricket South Africa (@OfficialCSA) February 21, 2019
Not the best day at the office for our batsmen, but what do you think the strategy should be going forward in this match?#SAvSL pic.twitter.com/11dqdoPucR
De Kock paid the match situation little heed, producing an innings of high-quality attacking strokeplay that briefly put the Sri Lankans on the back foot.
In the process, he also injured his groin, requiring treatment from the team physiotherapist.
That proved a distraction, for while he played in an even more attacking fashion with the ailment – seeking the boundary so as not to run between the wickets – it also brought about his downfall.
He tried another big shot against Dhananjaya de Silva’s part-time off-spin and was bowled for 86, an innings in which he faced only 87 balls and hit 12 fours.
Having made 80 when the Proteas were struggling in the first innings last week, which had been preceded by the hundred he scored in the last Test against Pakistan, De Kock is obviously in a rich vein of form.
But more is the pity that there is no one higher up the order to lend him proper support.
STUMPS DAY 1: Sri Lanka finish on 60/3 after 20 overs and trail by 162 runs. Thirimanne 25*, Rajitha 0*.— Cricket South Africa (@OfficialCSA) February 21, 2019
What are your thoughts on the first day's play?
Catch Day 2 on SuperSport 2, SABC 3 & Radio 2000 from 09:30.#ProteaFire #SAvSL pic.twitter.com/DNbPnVu11o
Rabada made 22, with his eighth-wicket partnership of 59, with De Kock crucial in helping the Proteas surpass the 200-run mark.
Fernando and Rajitha each claimed three wickets apiece in what was another disciplined display with the ball from the tourists, although had South Africa shown greater application, there is no way the visiting bowlers would have had their feet up with 90 minutes still to play on the first day.
In that period, the home team’s bowlers wrested away some of Sri Lanka’s initiative picking up three wickets.
Duanne Olivier claimed the scalps of Oshada Fernando for a duck and Kushal Mendis for 16 and Rabada had Karunaratne caught behind by De Kock after he’d scored 17.
Those wickets kept the hosts in contention, but they will have to bowl well on Friday to earn any sort of advantage on the first innings, following another mediocre effort with the bat.