Sri Lanka v South Africa, 1st Test, Colombo, 5th day July 31, 2006

Destroying with patience

Murali: soldiered on and on © AFP

The truth is that when Muttiah Muralitharan found some rare extra bounce with his sixth delivery of the final day, sufficient to find the outside edge and safe hands of Mahela Jayawardene at slip, South Africa's chances of a remarkable Houdini-escape all but evaporated. Eventually, mid-way through another sweltering afternoon, with politicians and VVIPs all crowded into Chairman's box, Lasith Malinga knocked back a startled-looking Makhaya Ntini's off stump to seal a landslide win.

That precipitated the longest of over-the-top presentations with Jayawardene repeatedly called to the podium to receive no less than three commemorative awards and two Man-of-the-Match cheques for his magnificent 374. But although weighed down by his latest collection of memorabilia, Jayawardene was quick to point out that his record-breaking heroics with Kumar Sangakkara would have amounted to little without his bowlers' back-breaking toil.

Muttiah Muralitharan, as he so often does, led an attack that soldiered on for 157.2 overs to bowl out a South African team hell-bent on pride restoration after their woeful first-innings performance, the key passage of the game. Despite some slight deterioration, the Sinhalese Sports Club pitch became ever slower and more docile. With a quick brush and new white lines, this strip might have even been able to stage the second Test too. Thus, slowly, patiently, skillfully wheedling out ten second innings was a major achievement.

Muralitharan reeled off over after over, perspiring a little in the scorching heat but never sagging as he bounced up to the crease. In total he delivered 384 deliveries, all with the same intensity and complete focus. The only time he grumbled was after stumps, quipping incredulously: "This SSC pitch is getting slower and slower with each series." It was almost a warning to the authorities, urging them to find some more pace and bounce in local pitches. A 34-year-old can't churn out 82.2 overs per Test for long.

But Muralitharan has never shirked work and today he rolled up his sleeves for some good, old fashioned, blue collar labour. The chief threat of his doosra was numbed by the slowness of the pitch and instead he relied on pinpoint accuracy and subtle variations in both his flight and angle of delivery. It wasn't his most dazzlingly destructive ten-for, full of explosive wrong'uns and wonder balls, but it was still absorbing to watch and a brilliant effort.

There was support too from the other end, first from Dilhara Fernando - who had an excellent Test match - and then from Sanath Jayasuriya. Fernando had made the initial inroads on day four and Jayasuriya picked up a vital scalp today with his canny left-arm spin. It is hard for the other specialist spinners waiting in the wings - Malinga Bandara and Rangana Herath - but the fact is that Jayasuriya's bowling on dry pitches is a major asset that also balances the team.

The only disappointment will have been Farveez Maharoof. His two wickets in the first innings were priceless, swinging the match Sri Lanka's way, but in the second innings, aside from a couple of leg-cutters, he was the least threatening member of the attack. Sri Lanka will now have three days to consider changes to their attack for the second Test. With Chaminda Vaas due to return, Maharoof is the likeliest to make way.

South Africa fought bravely in the last two days but in the end their whole match was scarred by their first-innings failure. With hindsight, a gruelling five-day Test in Colombo's sweltering heat and humidity was a tall order for a team given a solitary first-class match as preparation for a two-Test series after a 10-week holiday. Their batting though in the second-innings will have boosted confidence. The crucial issue though will be whether their bowlers, especially Makhaya Ntini, can conjure up sufficient fire and potency to trouble a now buoyant Sri Lankan top order.

Charlie Austin is Cricinfo's Sri Lankan correspondent