Keshav Maharaj will be key as the Proteas chase victory. Photo: Muzi Ntombela/BackpagePix
South Africa hold all the aces in Durban, but Sri Lanka have made things a lot harder than some had anticipated in this first Test.

At stumps on day three, the Proteas had three visiting wickets in the bag, with Sri Lanka in pursuit of an unlikely 304 to win. The wicket, though slow, is starting to provide more assistance for the spinner, especially.

There was one particular delivery, which got rid of an ominously set Quinton de Kock, that suggested that slow men can have a bigger say on the last two days.

De Kock had rushed to 55, again unfurling his range of cavalier shot-making, but he could do little with the sharp turn extracted by Lasith Embuldeniya. It hit the edge of a footmark, and spun viciously to nab him dead in front.

That De Kock ball also emphasised the quality of the 90 made by skipper Faf du Plessis. It was gritty, and most things that the De Kock delight was not.

Given the frantic fall of wickets in clusters over all three days, their 96 stand for the fifth wicket was worth a lot more than the number might suggest. It knocked the stuffing out of the visitors, built a wall too high for them to seriously consider climbing.

Du Plessis’ 90 was considered, but he still caught the eye with some sparkling drives off front and back-foot just after lunch.

The concentration, especially off the spinners, was quite something, and again displayed a hunger for ugly runs. Du Plessis had been an impassioned patron of the pitches that South Africa have produced all summer, so he knows well and truly that runs will not be easy to come by.

Here, on a Durban wicket that has been tougher to bat on - due to the lack of fluency - restraint has been a gift that many batsmen have lacked, and he ensured that Sri Lanka didn’t get a sniff.

When the end of the South African innings came, it was all rather sudden. The tail, often able to hang around, were simply blown away, and folded from 251 for six to 259 all out. Embuldeniya helped himself to a five-wicket haul on Test debut, with his own patience rewarded by some poor batting decisions.

The other star was Vishwa Fernando, who added four more scalps to his first innings harvest, and again impressed with his nagging length and curve.

Sri Lanka, even in likely defeat, have found two bowlers to work with for the future.

After that burst with the ball, Sri Lanka might again curse how they lost some of their wickets in the late afternoon, especially the casual manner in which Mendis tried to ramp Duanne Olivier over the slip cordon.

Given the phase of the game, and soon after a determined opening stand, it smacked of a lack of maturity. It was but a short passage of play, but it might have told South Africa that the tourists had privately thrown in the towel.

There is bad weather hovering during the weekend, so Sri Lanka would do well to hang around and see what happens. South Africa have bowled below par for large chunks, and Keshav Maharaj will have the pressure of delivering the big blows on a wicket that is bringing him into the game.

His quicks have put in a solid shift, but Maharaj has to be the main man on day four. At the least, he must prise the trap-door that leads to the tail open, and then let the predators prowl in for the kill.

South Africa need seven good balls, and Sri Lanka need something miraculous from their middle-order.

Now the rain must just stay away, so they can sort out their differences.


Independent on Saturday

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