Colombo -

Second Test, Day 2

South Africa first innings 98/3 (Amla 46no) v Sri Lanka 421 (Jayawardene 165, Dickwella 72, Mathews 63)

The South Africans have a scrap on their hands. Despite the rich talents lurking in their batting order, the tourists will have to pull out that very necessary tool when the team are on the back foot in Test cricket - playing ugly.

By the close on Friday, they had trudged to 98/3 in 52 painstaking overs.

Faf du Plessis and Hashim Amla added a stern 58 in 30 overs for the third wicket, as they tried to settle the ship. It was tough going, as the Sri Lankan spin triplets kept at them, gnawing away at the off-stump, with an army of ants around the bat.

“That wasn’t a game plan, but you have to look at what’s in front of you. After losing two quick wickets, Hash and I needed to steady the ship. We still looked to be positive, but it was important for us to look really solid,” Du Plessis explained.

Du Plessis fell for a steady 36, strangled down the leg-side by Suranga Lakmal, with a big hand from a diving Niroshan Dickwella.

“I think they should change that rule, and you shouldn’t be allowed to get out down the leg-side,” the Proteas No 3 winced.

Over the next three days, the rest of the batting card will have to serve up a pig’s ear of a contest to a Sri Lankan outfit whose hunger in saving the series has grown from peckish to ravenous, thanks to an even more dominant second day.

After day one, the Proteas could argue that the match was still there for the taking. A few quick wickets on the second morning, then a fluent display from their own batters, and the game would still be wide open.

But once Mahela Jayawardene took it upon himself to be the guest of honour and the entertainment at his own homecoming party, the South African challenge was compromised. Heck, Jayawardene could still be batting, had he not attempted a suicidal second run, and been gunned down by Alviro Petersen’s fling from the fine-leg region.

That ended seven and a half hours of artistry. During that time, the master had also inspired the apprentice, and debutant Niroshan Dickwella, gangly but game, got increasingly cavalier as his first taste of Test cricket went beyond three hours.

“He batted really well, and I think it helped him that he didn’t have too much time to think about his debut. I played against him in a club game about a year ago, and I could see then already that he had the temperament,” Jayawardene said of the tall left-hander, whose 72 inched Sri Lanka beyond 400.

That 421 was a big total. But it wasn’t cavernous.

“Those two run-outs probably cost us a really big total, but 421 is still a decent effort. If you look at the way South Africa batted so far, those runs may be enough,” Jayawardene added hopefully.

Having conceded 421, South Africa needed a solid start before tea. A start that would signal their intentions to dig in, and wrestle some initiative back.

What they got instead was a half-hearted, pat back to Rangana Herath from the off-colour Petersen, in just the second over of the response.

There is a time for airy-fairy wafts, when openers can indulge their whims and just put bat on ball, and hope for a favourable outcome.

Yesterday was just not one of those times, and Petersen must know that it isn’t only Graeme Smith’s vacancy that was up for audition at the top of the order.

Elgar followed his partner back to the hut 40 balls later, snapped up by the fielders crowding the bat.

Sri Lanka have been able to exert more pressure on the visitors because their spin trio of Herath, Mendis and Perera will, more often than not, land the ball in pre-determined pockets of powdery uncertainty.

“All their spinners bowl well. Herath lands it on a small piece of coin, and gives you nothing all day. Mendis has a lot of variety, and then their offie (Perera) has bowled really well. You don’t think much of him, but he keeps taking wickets,” Du Plessis explained.

The Proteas have their two finest players at the crease now, in Amla (46 not out) and AB de Villiers (11). Both are imperious when they are unfurling their full range of strokes.

But for now, they will have to resist their natural urge to be fluent, and fight as tenaciously as they did in the final hour yesterday.

Their team, indeed their country, needs them to be restrained and responsible. There is a series to win here, and after 21 years of waiting, they will have to take it by any means necessary.

- Saturday Star