Bowlers punish Dilshan for wrong decision
The question is not what Tillakaratne Dilshan, the Sri Lanka captain, was thinking when he put South Africa in to bat in Cape Town; it is whether he was thinking at all.
Perhaps, he was being cautious. The last time Sri Lanka played at Newlands, they elected to bat and were shot out for 95. They have already suffered two batting embarrassments on this tour and, after the high of winning in Durban, Dilshan may have wanted to avoid sending his batsmen in for another battle.
He may also have wanted to attack a South African batting line-up that is under a bit of pressure after the performance in Durban. Seldom is the South African Test batting line-up described as fragile, but with Alviro Petersen returning to the side for the first time since January, and the two Jacques, Kallis and Rudolph, having looked uncomfortable through the series, Dilshan may have wanted his quicks to have a go and try to exploit something in the pitch early on the first day.
Except, the pitch offered nothing and the South African line-up looked anything but fragile as they romped to 347 for 3. Dilshan's pre-match prediction that the deck would provide something for the fast bowlers turned out to be completely incorrect. "We thought the pitch will do something but it didn't do as we expected," Champaka Ramanayake, Sri Lanka's bowling coach, said. Perhaps more worrying for Sri Lanka is that there are already some cracks appearing and the pitch looks like it will deteriorate to provide assistance to the spinners later on. That means batting last could be difficult.
While Dilshan's decision was a particularly bad one, his bowling attack's attempt to back it up was far worse. The Sri Lanka bowlers came out looking absolutely listless, as though they wanted to punish their captain for his mistake. Chanaka Welegedara and Thisara Perera wasted the new ball; Dhammika Prasad showed a little more determination but in between his two wickets lacked control; Angelo Matthews bowled minimally but badly; even the usually consistent Rangana Herath was ineffective.
From the outset, Sri Lanka looked like they did not want to take wickets and did not believe they could. Welegedara's second over was a manual for what not to do with the new ball. He overpitched and was driven, he dropped it too short and was pulled, and then he overpitched again. In between, he managed to overstep and dish one up too wide. In any format of the game, that over would have been classified as rubbish. As if that wasn't enough, Perera pitched in with two boundary balls of his own in the next over.
Sri Lanka were lucky that Graeme Smith decided early on that he wasn't going to waste time against their bowling. He played at balls that he could have left and when he reached to cut Prasad inside-edged onto leg stump, getting himself out rather than succumbing to the bowling. The only wicket-taking ball Sri Lanka produced in the morning session was the one Prasad angled in to trap Hashim Amla lbw. Despite being shabby, Sri Lanka had a chance to win the morning session when Kallis hit a pull in the air towards deep square leg off the fourth ball he faced. Welegedara did not pick the ball up in the deep and the chance was gone. "We could have kept them to less than 80 runs and taken the wicket of Kallis," Ramanayake said of the first session.
Instead, Sri Lanka may as well have handed Alviro Petersen and Jacques Kallis deck chairs and drinks with umbrellas in them while inviting them to sit on the pitch and enjoy the view. The bunch of short balls banged in made things simple for the batsmen, who pulled repeatedly. The fact that 64% of the runs came on the leg side reflects how Sri Lanka's bowlers failed to attack the off stump or bowl more challenging lengths. Ramanayake said the problem was that the lengths were too short. "The line wasn't too bad but the lengths could have been better. We bowled too short and Kallis played really well."
With the sun burning down on their backs, Sri Lanka's bowlers got worse. At some point in the post-lunch session it really seemed that they had stopped caring. By then, they must have known that the only way they would get wickets was by cutting off runs and building pressure. But they could not stop Petersen and Kallis' free scoring. "We let them go, we lost grip," Ramanayake said. "We didn't do well at all. We are disappointed."
Sri Lanka's bowlers do not need Ramanayake, or anyone else, to tell them that they bowled poorly. They need only glance at the scoreboard for evidence of that. The only consolation is that the pitch will probably still be good for batting when Sri Lanka's batsmen get their turn, and Ramanayake said he hoped they could match South Africa's effort. "Tomorrow is another day so hopefully we can get seven wickets and then bat well. It's a good batting wicket so our players can also score some runs."
If only they had the chance to do it on the first day, Dilshan may think.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent