Sri Lanka v South Africa, 1st Test, Colombo, 4th day July 30, 2006

Grim fight for survival



After their limp first-innings effort, South Africa, led by Ashwell Prince, put up a dogged battle © Getty Images

The only happy Sri Lankan after the fourth day was the man handed a last-minute commission from Sri Lanka Cricket to make a memento in time for the after-match presentations for Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara to celebrate their world record. The craftsmen promised delivery by the mid-afternoon and prayed South Africa didn't collapse in a heap. Predictably, for a cricketing nation that prides itself on its fighting qualities, the white flag was not raised and Sri Lanka Cricket's craftsman can polish up his work overnight.

It was a tough, combative performance from South Africa's batsmen on a pitch that provided few horrors. Sri Lanka's bowlers were forced to toil hard, even Muttiah Muralitharan who twirled out 40 overs on what was another baking hot day. But although Prince's 170-ball 60 not out has the makings of a classic rearguard, providing South Africa with the faintest glimmer of hope, the cards are still stacked overwhelmingly in Sri Lanka's favour.

In truth, Sri Lanka always knew it would be hardwork bowling out South Africa in the second innings. When Murali wandered out for his morning inspection of the pitch, a cursory glance at the cracks led him to the conclusion: "The pitch will break up tomorrow, today will be hard work." This is normally the way at the Sinhalese Sports Club and it will be far tougher for the tourists on Monday. Don't expect dusty explosions, but the odd delivery will turn at right-angles or creep along the ground.

After their limp first-innings effort, South Africa played today like they had planned to, concentrating hard, sticking to individual gameplans and searching for runs. Runs were gathered at a decent pace with Jacques Rudolph particularly impressive in the morning, efficiently clipping away any bad balls. Andrew Hall was less comfortable, especially against Murali who felt he'd bagged his man at least twice before a finger was finally raised, but equally hard-working.

But Prince's was the most impressive hand simply because of the context: his team hanging-on by a thread and his reputation as a leader up in the air. His on-field captaincy was hardly inspiring and he needed to lead from the front with the bat. At the start he was crab-like, desperately trying to resist the temptation to waft as Jayawardene instructed his seamers to slide deliveries across his bows. After 48 deliveries he had scratched out just four runs. But gradually he started to grow more assured, clipping neatly of his legs and occasionally chasseing down the pitch to meet Murali, who he couldn't decode from the wrist but watched like a hawk from the pitch.

Indeed, the pitch was so slow that Murali could be played off the pitch. Eventually, Jayawardene tossed him the new ball, hoping it would skid through a little quicker. The ploy worked as AB de Villiers fell lbw but then Prince and Boucher battened down the hatches for the evening. Sri Lanka have one more new ball up their sleeve, available around tea time tomorrow, but the key weapons in the morning will be more spin and possibly some reverse-swing. They will be desperate for early success in the morning because, as Pakistan showed in April when they batted out the final day here, South Africa's self-belief will grow quickly if they reach lunch without major damage.

Charlie Austin is Cricinfo's Sri Lankan correspondent