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July 27, 2006
Ashwell Prince's first day at the helm could not have been worse: he failed with the bat, South Africa were bundled out for a record low and then his bowlers, after being teased by the success of a double-strike with the new ball, were flayed to all corners of the Sinhalese Sports Club. Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene steamed along in one-day mode and when bad light brought Prince's suffering to an end it was unclear why he kicked the dust in frustration at the umpires' offer of bad light, a decision that now gives his team a much-needed opportunity to regroup.
Sri Lanka improved with each session of the day. Their opening bowlers, Lasith Malinga and Farveez Maharoof, were not at their sharpest in the morning but, led by Dilhara Fernando, they still prevented South Africa from amassing a good score. In the afternoon the bowlers tightened up and South Africa crumbled. By the evening, after the hiccup against the new ball, their batsman were flying, apparently still riding the wave of confidence they built up in England.
Sri Lanka's stars were largely the normal suspects - Muttiah Muralitharan, Sangakkara and Jayawardene - but the biggest bonus was the performance of Fernando, a pace bowler who appears to have overcome an overstepping curse that derailed his rhythm and forced him out of the team for the England tour. But after missing the Test segment of that tour he re-joined the team for the ODIs to play a crucial hand, hitting the crease hard, maintaining good lines and generating slippery pace. He continued in the same vein today, bowling intelligently on a pitch that demanded him to be straight and full. Three of his victims were bowled and one lbw, a testament to his method.
The crucial passage of play though was immediately after the luncheon break when Jayawardene tossed the ball to Maharoof. His three-over new ball spell was tepid and a solitary over before lunch was expensive. The obvious choice to partner Murali was Fernando or Malinga, but Jayawardene backed Maharoof to come good against the left-handed Jacques Rudolph and his faith was rewarded. Rudolph will have left disappointed with his half-hearted push but Prince, aware that the innings hung in the balance, would have been livid with his carbon-copy dismissal. South Africa's respectable 78 for 2 at lunch become a desperate 80 for 4.
AB de Villiers, fortunately, walked his confident pre-match talk. Beforehand he had arrogantly thrown down a challenge to Murali, claiming he could be rattled and knocked off-course - big words against a bowler with 635 Test wickets in his back pocket. But de Villiers was the only South African to look comfortable against Murali and his arrival injected energy into the innings. Earlier his team-mates had stagnated dangerously, allowing Murali to reel off six maidens in his first eight overs of the series. While patience is an essential ingredient to success against Murali, he cannot be allowed to settle into a groove. The one thing that Murali abhors in life is runs off his bowling.
The South African approach to Murali summed up the day: they allowed Sri Lanka to settle. They were tentative when they needed to be aggressive, arrogant and intense if they were to be able to knock Sri Lanka off their post-England high. Now they have their backs firmly to the wall with Sri Lanka trailing by only 41 runs. Unless they can conjure up some fire on the second morning, possibly exploiting some overnight sweating under the covers, then Sri Lanka will be out of sight by the end of day two.
Charlie Austin is Cricinfo's Sri Lankan correspondentFeeds: Charlie Austin
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