GALLE – At one stage yesterday the Proteas looked as though they would be able to dismiss hosts Sri Lanka for around 200 in the first innigns of the first Test in Galle.
But then on the idyllic coast of the Indian Ocean island, the home team's tail marshalled by opener Dimuth Karunaratne, sparked to lift their side to 287 all out.
Earlier pure pace and sweet spin had combined delectably, especially in the middle session, to leave the home side in the perilous position of 178/8 in the afternoon.
During this intense period Kagiso Rabada - just like his captain Faf du Plessis had promised in the pre-match interviews - exhibited all the skill and passion that has earned the 23-year-old his world No 1 status.
Often it is hard to point out exactly why Rabada has risen to such lofty heights so swiftly. He does not have the metronomic accuracy of Vernon Philander, nor the exquisite swing of Dale Steyn.
However, Rabada’s greatest asset is arguably his stallion-like physique that allows him to deliver consistent spells of searing pace even in the most inhospitable of conditions. Coupled with the ability to manipulate his lengths is another commendable attribute.
It was these attributes that, along with Tabraiz Shamsi’s spin and guile upon his return to the Test side after an 18-month spell in the wilderness, that saw Sri Lanka lose six wickets for 61 runs either side of a deluge that swept over the ground in the afternoon.
Perhaps the energy-sapping humidity becomes a factor the longer the day wears on here, but the Proteas simply wilted under the watch of the old Galle Fort in the final two hours. Chances were created, but the Decision Review System ruled that Dean Elgar had not completed a fair catch that would have closed the Sri Lankan innings.
That allowed Karunaratne - the man his teammates refer to as the “Marathon Man” - to dig his heels in even further. It almost seemed that Karunaratne thrived on keeping the Proteas in the heat, just like he did to Pakistan in the desert sand of Abu Dhabi last year, as his innings grew in fluency the longer he was at the crease.
This final partnership is proving to be stubborn and difficult to break. SL 240/9 after 67 overs. Karunaratne continues to charge on with 133* on the board, Sandakan his willing partner on 4*. #SLvSA #ProteaFire pic.twitter.com/xnzo4UxAiX
With the able assistance of captain Suranga Lakmal (10 off 40 balls) and last-man Lakshan Sandakan (25 off 55 balls), Karunaratne added an invaluable 111 runs for the last two wickets, while in the process carrying his bat for a majestic 158 not out off 222 balls (13x4, 1x6).
To further emphasise the importance of those lower-order runs, and the challenge that lay ahead of the South African batsmen on a pitch that is already taking appreciable turn, the Proteas lost opener Aiden Markram for a duck to the wily left-armer Rangana Herath as the shadows lengthened on a gripping first day.
“I will probably say the day was even. The guys towards the end batted really well. You must give credit to their tail as well. The guys from our side were really toiling hard, but credit to them, they stuck around with the in-batsman,” said Shamsi.
“As we expect it is a turning wicket. The spinners need to do the damage, but our seamers were brilliant. Kagiso Rabada took four wickets. The rain did play a role there, I won’t say it caused havoc, but the ball getting wet and things like that does affect play.
I don’t want to take credit away from the way they batted because the opener showed it is possible to score runs. He batted really nicely.”