Sri Lanka took control of the first Test on a 13-wicket day in Galle, where spinners dominated. After South Africa were shot out for 126 – their lowest total in Sri Lanka – with seven wickets falling to the spin trio of Rangana Herath, Dilruwan Perera and Lakshan Sandakan, Sri Lanka lost their first three wickets to Keshav Maharaj, but remain in a position to push for victory over the next three days, after taking a first innings lead of 161 runs.
On a surface that is taking substantial, but not unplayable turn, anything over 300 would be daunting. For a South African side who woke the ghosts of India 2015, the lead is perhaps already too much.
In South Africa’s last eight innings in the subcontinent, they have only managed to score more than 200 runs once and the last time they scored over 300 in Asia was in the Galle Test four years ago. While there are elements of technique that are wanting – the left-handers playing across the line is an example – their confidence is the bigger concern. Collapses of 6 for 51 and 4 for 11, which sandwiched the 64-run seventh-wicket stand between Faf du Plessis and Vernon Philander, would have done nothing to boost their belief.
Herath made the first incision into South Africa at the end of the opening day when he removed Aiden Markram, and he did the same on the second morning when he beat nightwatchman Maharaj with an arm-ball. And then the wickets tumbled.
Dean Elgar played across a Dilruwan Perera delivery that took the outside edge to offer first slip a catch, Hashim Amla was given out caught at short leg on review off Dilruwan, Temba Bavuma dragged a Sandakan ball onto his stumps as he swept, a shot he had employed with success earlier in his short innings and Quinton de Kock was bowled by Dilruwan, also playing across the line. Shortly after the first drinks, South Africa were 51 for 6, and left du Plessis with the tail.
Philander showed the patience the top order lacked and defended solidly, while du Plessis tried to play a more positive role in also searching for runs. The pair ushered South Africa past their lowest total since readmission, 79, and over the 100 mark. Philander was fortunate when Sri Lanka missed a chance to review a Herath delivery that would have gone on to hit middle stump – the last of three opportunities they did not take – and reviewed successfully when he was given out two overs later. He faced 86 balls, only two fewer than du Plessis, before he was out for 18.
Du Plessis, celebrating his 34th birthday, played with as much intent as he could and compiled 49. But when Philander went, he followed within three balls. After several inside-edges, du Plessis missed a Suranga Lakmal ball that nipped in and was bowled. Lakmal had not used himself before the 37th over but enjoyed the last bits of reward when he also bowled Rabada and had Steyn caught at first slip.
Already low on morale, South Africa’s situation only worsened when Danuskha Gunathilaka and Dimuth Karunaratne put on 51 for the opening stand, denied Dale Steyn the two wickets he needs to overtake Shaun Pollock as South Africa’s leading Test wicket-taker but offered three other chances.
Maharaj appealed for lbw against Gunathilaka, but the opener had shuffled far enough across enough to get umpire’s call on impact. Then, Gunathilaka lap-swept Maharaj in front of backward square but Bavuma could not hold on to the catch. Later, Gunathilaka reverse-swept Maharaj between the wicket-keeper and first slip. And this time, Maharaj got his man, and two others, when Gunathilaka picked out deep mid-wicket, Dhananjaya de Silva, who was bowled and Kusal Mendis given out lbw.
As he had done in the first innings, Karunaratne anchored Sri Lanka and became only the second batsman after Kumar Sangakkara to score a century and a half-century against South Africa in a Test. He took on the spinners with success, used his feet well and his placement was impressive but he was eventually undone with Kagiso Rabada having him caught at slip.
There was no further damage done to Sri Lanka before the close, which gives them the resources to add to their total on the third day.