GALLE, Sri Lanka - As much as things change, things stay the same. Last time out here on the idyllic coast of Sri Lanka, South Africa’s batsmen flung their hard-earned advantage out into the Indian Ocean before the opening day of the series had run its course.
Four years on, it was the turn of the Proteas bowlers on the first day of the two-Test series at the Galle International Stadium on Thursday. 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.
At that stage dismissing Sri Lanka below 200 was well within the realms of reality, even with the tenacious and compact Sri Lankan opener Dimuth Karunaratne fighting a lone battle at one end. 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 metronome accuracy of Vernon Philander, neither 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. The ability to manipulate his lengths is another commendable attribute.
These attributes, along with Tabraiz Shamsi’s spin and guile upon his return to the Test side after an 18-month spell in the wildnerness, saw Sri Lanka lose 6/61 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 (DRS) 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.
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) as the hosts reached 287 all out.
Stumps, Day 1: SA 4/1 after 4 overs. Elgar 4*, Maharaj 0*, trail by 283. Last wicket: Markram 0.
SL 287. Rabada 4/50, Shamsi 3/91, Philander 1/28, Steyn 1/54. #SLvSA #ProteaFire pic.twitter.com/r6uPlFI142
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 as the visitors went to stumps on 4/1.
“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 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.”
First Test, Day 1
Sri Lanka: 287 all out (Karunaratne 158*, Rabada 4/50, Shamsi 3/90
South Africa: 4/1 (Markram 0, Elgar 4*, Maharaj 0*)