South Africa v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Centurion, 1st day December 15, 2011

Sri Lanka pin hopes on Fernando

Nine years ago, on this very ground, Dilhara Fernando almost bowled Sri Lanka to victory over South Africa. The visitors set South Africa a small target of 121, yet had them seven down when victory came. Four of the seven sticks belonged to Fernando. This time, with his side being shot out cheaply on the first day at Centurion, a repeat of such a finish is a pipe dream but with Fernando on form the visitors still have belief.

"He [Fernando] is at his peak," Kaushal Silva, Sri Lanka wicket-keeper said. "He has been doing well for the past couple of months. In the Abu Dhabi tour [against Pakistan], he bowled really quickly. If he bowls well and takes vital wickets, he will be the key man for us."

Fernando finished a controlled spell late on the first day, showing promising signs. He surprised Graeme Smith with a bouncer and then pitched one up to have the South African captain rapped on the pads - a crucial wicket that created a small opening for Sri Lanka. With Dale Steyn at the crease as the night watchman, and a circumspect Jacques Rudolph at the other end on the second morning, Sri Lanka may see the chance to prise the crack open a little wider.

"It moves a lot in the morning," Silva said. "If we can take two or three early wickets in the morning, we can come back into the game." Overhead conditions may not assist Sri Lanka in their task, with skies clearing as the first day wore on and stars visible once darkness descended. Still, they have to hope, after a dismal outing with the bat in which they were rolled out for 180.

"We were hoping for around 250 or 300, and with the way Mahela [Jayawardene] and later Thilan [Samaraweera] were going, we were on target to get there," Silva said. After the pair was dismissed, Sri Lanka lost six wickets for 24 runs and finished well below par on a pitch that should become easier for batting.

Sri Lanka's troubles began at the top, when Tillakaratne Dilshan started the rot by playing a rash shot that had no place in a Test match. Silva said the team was not disappointed by the captain's failure and appreciated that when he comes off, it serves them well. "That's his natural game," Silva said. "Sometimes it is an advantage because if he scores quickly, the pressure on the team comes down."

This time, it did not work and the resulting wretched batting means Sri Lanka put themselves on the back foot. Silva tried to stay positive, though, and hinted that the defensive bowling they started with could turn into something more aggressive on the second morning. "The last few overs, we bowled really well. Tomorrow morning we will need to start again and forget about what happened today."

Forget they might, but undo they cannot, and it will require a supreme effort from Fernando and others to erase the effect of the first-innings collapse and turn this match into a contest.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent