GALLE - All that South Africa can do now is hang on in there. The first Test has degenerated purely into an exercise in damage limitation, and hopefully lessons learnt that can be taken down the impressive new highway to the bustling capital for next week’s second Test in Colombo.
Miracles do happen in these parts. This very stadium - that is flanked by the Indian Ocean on both sides - was restored after it was virtually destroyed by the 2004 tsunami, but South Africa’s mountain is almost as high as the Fort Clock Tower that overlooks the ground. Considering that the Test – let alone the series - is still in its embryonic stage of just two days old tells the story of South Africa’s calamities almost on its own. The fact that it has all been garishly witnessed before is the real worry, though.
Mohali, Bangalore, Nagpur, Delhi and now Galle can be added to the list of places where South Africa’s batting unit has succumbed to the slow poison of spin bowling on helpful pitches. Across those eight innings – South Africa’s most recent on the subcontinent – the Proteas have passed 200 only once. On Friday they were not that lucky, with Sri Lanka’s spin trio of Dilruwan Perera (4/46), Rangana Herath (2/39) and Lakshan Sandakan (1/18) claiming the first seven South African wickets to fall to skittle the tourists for their lowest score – 126 – on the island, which ceded a massive advantage of 161 runs to their hosts.
It was an even greater calamity, with the “Nightmare of Nagpur” - when South Africa posted their lowest score (79) since readmission – was almost revisited when the old manual scoreboard read 51/6 in the morning session. However, Proteas captain Faf du Plessis, just like Sri Lanka’s Dimuth Karunaratne had shown over both days with a first-innings century and another half-century on Friday, that runs could be scored through “a decent defence, good scoring options and some good fortune”.
Du Plessis contributed 49, and more importantly formed part of a 64-run partnership with all-rounder Vernon Philander (19) that ensured the record books at least remained intact in some part. “It is a tough pitch for both teams, as you saw when we bowled in the first innings," South Africa’s most experienced subcontinent tourist, Hashim Amla, explained.
"Their opener batted exceptionally well. He had an excellent knock which basically got them to a score they got to. It is a tough wicket. You have to try and capitalise on the loose balls when you do get them, and hope that a ball doesn’t have your number, getting caught behind or whatever the case is.”
To fault only the surface for South Africa’s spin failures would though be an injustice to Herath and Co. Regardless of which arm the grenades were delivered from, they all had the control and deception of flight and length to explode at the other end. All of this, coupled with Sri Lanka’s lead already having bulged to beyond the record fourth-innings score successfully chased here, leaves the Proteas in a perilous position that Amla conceded bordered on the near impossible.
Day two, Stumps
Sri Lanka: 287 & 111/4 (Karunaratne 60, Maharaj 3/37)
South Africa: 126 all out (Du Plessis 49, Perera 4 /46, Herath 2/39)
Sri Lanka lead by 272 runs