TELFORD VICE, Port Elizabeth
ST George’s Park is where test cricket comes to grow up, where neither runs nor wickets are prised loose without a fight and a day in the field or even at the crease can seem like a week in a queue.
So it was on Tuesday, when only 195 runs were scored in 65.5 overs before bad light ended play with 22 overs unbowled. And so it wasn’t – 11 wickets fell.
They went down as much because of batting errors as superb bowling, and also perhaps because of air heavy with high summer’s humidity made moister still by the easterly skipping in from the sea and over the scoreboard.
South Africa’s last four wickets crashed for 19 runs in the first 53 balls of the day’s play, which meant they lost their last seven men for 73.
That made a total of 286 look like a wasted opportunity considering the moderate opposition.
But only until the Lankans crashed to 22/3. They will resume on Wednesday still deep in the woods on 181/7.
Dhananjaya de Silva, who scrapped manfully for his unbeaten 43, looms as key to the visitors’ fortunes.
Vernon Philander had the most to do with leading them astray by bowling immaculately and letting the conditions do the rest for his 3/35. Not far behind the sultan of superbly subtle seamery was Kyle Abbott, who took 2/49.
Both conceded comfortably fewer than three runs to the over and bowled as if they had the ball on a string.
“The wicket asked of us to be patient, to drag the batsman across (the crease) and bowl the odd one straighter,” Philander said.
“There was a lot in the wicket. We knew that if we could string good overs together we could pick up wickets quickly.
“We knew there was a lot to work with, a bit of assistance. Sometimes it did a bit too much.
“We knew it was going to be tough scoring here – it’s always tough scoring in PE.”
But that only makes the runs that are eked out more valuable. How many did Philander think South Africa needed to be ahead to consider themselves on top after both first innings?
“Heading into the third innings, 80-plus will put us in good stead,” he said.
Philander himself started the day’s slide of wickets in the fifth over when he hoisted Nuwan Pradeep and was caught in the deep.
Four overs later South Africa were dismissed with Quinton de Kock, undone by a Pradeep yorker that swung past his bat but not his stumps, last out for 37.
Between those two strikes Suranga Lakmal took the wicket he needed – Keshav Maharaj’s, caught behind – to complete his first five-wicket haul in his 32nd test. He claimed 5/63.
But Sri Lanka’s satisfaction with their bowling was soon quelled.
Dimuth Karunaratne drove expansively at Abbott and dragged the ball onto his leg stump before Kusal Perera and Kusal Mendis were snaffled behind – both after playing rash strokes – off Philander and Abbott.
Opener Kaushal Silva showed more discipline and was still there at lunch, but in the ninth over of the second session he was trapped in front by a Philander inswinger to end his vigil of 16 runs and 59 balls.
Angelo Matthews survived two reviews before, in the seventh over before tea, edging Kagiso Rabada to third slip to go for 39.
Eleven balls later the Lankans should have been 94/6 but De Kock, diving to his right, couldn’t hold the edge Dinesh Chandimal offered off Rabada.
But there was no sparing Chandimal 10 overs later when Philander pinned his pad with an inswinger.
Rangana Herath played the sprightliest knock of the innings, clipping 32 off 24, before Keshav Maharaj beat a reverse-sweep to earn another lbw.
Maharaj might have claimed another wicket when De Silva, on 27 with the total 162/7, hammered a drive back to the bowler. Sadly, for Maharaj and South Africa, he dropped it.
But there will be more chances on Wednesday, for both teams.