South Africa v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Centurion, 2nd day December 16, 2011

Lack of runs hinders Sri Lanka fight

Sri Lanka kept up a competitive spirit for large parts of day two but their lack of first-innings runs saw their comeback wilt away

Test cricket, unlike any other sport, does not give mismatches anywhere to hide. In football, when a team goes 7-nil down, like North Korea did against Portugal in last year's World Cup, the humiliation was over in 90 minutes. The same goes for rugby. In baseball, a mercy rule kills a World Series once it's been won. In a Test match, five, long days can go by in which one side totally dominates the other.

When Sri Lanka were shot out for 180 and South Africa raced to 90 for one overnight, this match seemed headed that way. By the end of the day, with South Africa in the lead by 209, the one-way traffic analogy still applied.

But, for a session and a little more, Sri Lanka did what they could to keep ignite a competitive flame and had they continue to apply the pressure they created, the result could have been very different. Ultimately, they just did not have enough runs to keep the bowlers interested for long enough and their initial control turned into a casual going through the motions, undoing what started off as a surprisingly promising show by the Sri Lankan bowlers.

After the absurdity of the nightwatchman was once again proved with the run-out of Dale Steyn in the second over, Sri Lanka's bowlers woke up. Ten times, South Africa's batsmen edged, four of those were fatal. The return could have been better for Sri Lanka, who dropped three catches, and they could have minimised the damage they suffered if the fielders had backed up the bowler's efforts.

When a team has to take the field with only a small total to play with, according to Shaun Pollock, they have to set more defensive fields. The logic is that cutting off run flow will force rash strokes. But is also a strategy that relies on the opposition making mistakes and against a technically sound and classy South African line-up, relying on error alone will not work. But, Sri Lanka understood that they needed to find a balance between attack and defence and seemed to get it right at first.

The three wickets that fell late in the day drew mild, almost non-existent, celebrations from the fielders who knew that the bowlers had conjured up a little but that little is probably not enough.

Chanaka Welegedara convinced Tillakaratne Dilshan that a more attacking approach was needed when he forced Jacques Rudolph into playing a short ball that rose on him. The edge required Mahela Jayawardene to dive to his left and although he got hands to it, could not hold on. A third slip might have. Welegedara also could have had Hashim Amla early on when he offered him a full ball to drive, which Amla's lack of footwork did not allow him to get to. The resulting edge flew through the area where third slip would have been.

Those two chances prompted Dilshan to insert a third slip and four over later, Amla was caught in that position. Thisara Perera induced the drive but held the length back to exact an awkward drive from Amla. Three slips remained in place for most of the day after that.

The Sri Lankan bowlers sought to bring the cordon into play as they varied their lengths all morning and did particularly well when they were able to make the ball bounce off the dents in the pitch. For a significant period of time, they had the South African batsmen unsure whether to leave or play or they were able to maintain accurate enough lines to prevent the shots they did play from causing too much harm. There was some assistance in the pitch and some deliveries kept lower than expected, like the one that clanged into Kallis' helmet, but even with aid from the surface, skill is required to make it work in one's favour.

Sometimes, that skill can crave a result too much. Perera showed some over-eagerness when he saw tried too hard to create an edge. His 12th over was a disaster, in which he overpitched and was driven through the covers, veered onto the legside and was whipped through mid-wicket and then, in exasperation, sent down a half-volley which Kallis gobbled up.

Dilhara Fernando struck the right balance and his sustained attack on Kallis should have seen him get some reward. He smacked South Africa's highest Test run-scorer on the side of his head, drew blood from him and then would have him out at the start of the next over, when Kaushal Silva palmed the easiest of catches.

Kallis was shaken but valiant and came out after lunch to face a dangerous looking Welegedara. Dilshan's tactics worked as he used the spinner to change the left-armer's end and third slip came into play again and Kallis drove, edged and was out.

Silva said that Herath was only expected to play a containing role in the first innings and it was one that he did well. While holding on his end, he gave Welegedara licence to continue being in the batsmen's face. Again, the edge appeared. Ashwell Prince took South Africa into the lead with two streaky shots and continued to look shaky when he edged Perera to third man later in the sesson.

De Villiers defied the control and ended Sri Lanka's resistance in the 67th over when he timed a drive past the bowler, with such grace and class that one could almost see the sting being removed from Sri Lanka's tail. As the lead ballooned, the bowling became progressively more listless, although the script was punctuated with wickets, it was only for a few balls after each stick fell that Sri Lanka perked up a little again.

The second new ball was just about wasted and when Angelo Matthews' review against AB de Villiers, who was initially given not out, did not yield a result, the shoulders dropped even lower. The three wickets that fell late in the day to take Sri Lanka close to the end of the South African line-up drew mild, almost non-existent, celebrations from the fielders who knew that the bowlers had conjured up a little but that little is probably not enough. Day three will present the best conditions for batting but Sri Lanka will need something resembling a miracle to prevent a predictable and one-sided conclusion to this Test.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent