Mahela keeps Sri Lanka in the hunt
Mahela Jayawardene played an innings of immense class, skill and fortitude as Sri Lanka made huge strides towards chasing down an imposing fourth-innings target and sewing up the series 2-0. Set a target of 352 after Muttiah Muralitharan's 7 for 97 helped restrict South Africa to 311, Sri Lanka rode on Mahela's unbeaten 77 and Sanath Jayasuriya's 73 to finish the fourth day on 262 for 5, needing only 90 more for victory.
Over the first three days, fortunes ebbed and flowed for both teams, and that trend continued on the fourth. Muralitharan equalled his own record of ten or more wickets in four consecutive matches and grabbed his 56th five-for, but Mark Boucher neutralised the Murali effect somewhat, striking an enterprising 65 to ensure that South Africa's lead topped 350. Sri Lanka then got off to a scorching start after losing an early wicket, but just when they seemed to be running away with it, Nicky Boje struck three crucial blows in the middle, only for Mahela to thwart South Africa with a resolute 61-run stand for the sixth wicket with the other Jayawardene, Prasanna.
South Africa didn't have everything going their way, but they stuck to their task through the day: Makhaya Ntini's effectiveness was drastically reduced by a hamstring injury, while Hashim Amla spilled a regulation chance off Jayasuriya, who returned to form after a lean spell just like Herschelle Gibbs, the South African opener, had in their second innings. The most crucial lapse, though, was from Gibbs himself - when Mahela was on 2, he cut Andrew Hall hard but straight to gully, where Gibbs failed to latch on. Both the dropped catches happened in a particularly enthralling 15-minute passage of play, during which period the South Africans had appealed for handled the ball against Jayasuriya as well.
That neither team could take charge was also because of the pitch, which the ICC could probably preserve as the ideal pitch for Test cricket. The bounce remained largely consistent, ensuring that the batsmen could go through with their strokes, but there was plenty of turn and bounce for Boje, while Dale Steyn - who bowled one particularly fiery spell in the last session, consistently topping 140kmph - and Hall got the ball to zip through to the keeper with good pace and carry.
The one batsman who held it all together for Sri Lanka and stood between them and defeat was Mahela. Over the last few months he has been in a rich vein of form, and that continued here, with an exhibition of outstanding calm and serenity in the face of extreme pressure. He did play his trademark elegant shots - the standout ones being the inside-out lofted extra-cover drives off Boje, which twice went for sixes - but more than that, his composure and defensive technique were impeccable. His partnership with Prasanna - who showed excellent technique and temperament for the second time in the match - he added crucial runs for the sixth wicket which kept South Africa at bay just when they seemed set to snatch the initiative.
The other big contribution to the Sri Lankan run-chase came from Jayasuriya. His last ten Tests had fetched him just 237 runs at an average of 15.80, but here he was intent on taking the fight to the South Africans. After a relatively quiet start in which he allowed Kumar Sangakkara to dominate, Jayasuriya took over, smashing Steyn for two fours through the off side before taking apart a listless Shaun Pollock. The lack of pace in Pollock's deliveries allowed Jayasuriya to do what he liked - he first pulled and drove to the fence, and then rubbed it in by sashaying down the pitch and depositing the ball over long-on for six. Though Pollock got some measure of revenge when he nailed Sangakkara, he continued to be a pale shadow of his usual self, and was eventually reduced to bowling offspin from a few paces.
A fourth-innings target of more than 350 has never been successfully chased in Sri Lanka - the highest is the 326 that Sri Lanka chased against Zimbabwe in 1997-98 - but clearly no-one mentioned that to Mahela. As long as he remains at the crease, Sri Lanka will fancy their chances on the final day.
South Africa (overnight 257 for 7)
Nicky Boje c P Jayawardene b Muralitharan 15 (280 for 8)
Nicked one that spun away sharply
Dale Steyn lbw b Muralitharan 0 (282 for 9)
Went back to an offbreak and trapped plumb in front
Mark Boucher c Dilshan b Muralitharan 65 (311 all out)
Swept powerfully but the ball lodged under the armpit at short leg
Upul Tharanga c Gibbs b Ntini 0 (12 for 1)
Edged a ball angling away to second slip
Kumar Sangakkara c Amla b Pollock 39 (94 for 2)
Low catch at point off an uppish square-drive
Sanath Jayasuriya c Amla b Boje 73 (121 for 3)
Gloved one that bounced and spun to short leg
Tillakaratne Dilshan c Gibbs 18 (164 for 4)
Stepped out to drive but edged to slip
Chamara Kapugedera c de Villiers b Boje 13 (201 for 5)
Excellent low catch at cover, off a drive
S Rajesh is stats editor of Cricinfo