Sri Lanka v South Africa, 1st Test, Galle, 1st day July 16, 2014

Sri Lanka avoid the Sri Lanka treatment

South Africa looked all set to hand Sri Lanka a taste of their own medicine, but an unrelenting spell of accuracy from Suranga Lakmal meant the hosts had other ideas

All through the noughties, teams touring Sri Lanka all had the same basic experience. The team would arrive on the island and travel to a five-star hotel overlooking some sun-spangled curve of sand, which, over the next couple of days, they might admire with a fruit drink in hand and a sea-breeze in their hair.

They might even arrive on the first Test match day with a stomach full of string hoppers and coconut sambol, or fresh tropical fruit and muesli - depending on what the team nutritionist was like. But that is where the holiday would end. Having sunned and served the visitors, Sri Lanka would set about smearing them onto the turf.

Home captains won the toss with almost supernatural consistency. They would bat first, always. With any luck, 320 would be eclipsed on day one, then 450 midway through the second day. Even when the hosts had enough runs, they would bat on just for the fun of it. It was almost the holistic, eastern equivalent of Steve Waugh's famous method; this was disintegration of both mind and body.

The last time South Africa were in the country for Tests, they did not even lose the toss, yet they were blasted out for 169 and then watched Sri Lanka amass 756 for 5, at the SSC. That is like watching Leonardo da Vinci paint the Mona Lisa right after you have stabbed yourself in the eye with the paintbrush.

They wanted things to be different this time. They wanted to give Sri Lanka the Sri Lanka treatment. Having gone to tea at 194 for 1 they were almost pulling it off. Sri Lanka, though, had been on the other end of this so many times, they knew what not to do.

The hosts do not have a Muttiah Muralitharan anymore to suddenly turn what seemed to be a featherbed into a 22-yard pit of vipers. But in this new attack's endearing working-class style, they avoided being treated like foreigners on their home soil. The third session is where batsmen so often cash in, but it was the bowlers who reaped the rewards for a tough day's toil with four wickets for 74 runs after tea.

Almost a month ago, Shaminda Eranga had plugged away meticulously on day two at Headingley, until the England top order finally broke and Sri Lanka's chances rose in the match. But as he left the field with a split webbing in Galle, Suranga Lakmal returned from injury to deliver the mean, probing, unrelenting spells that have so often formed the basis of Sri Lanka's Test success in 2014.

That there was nothing for the seamers off the pitch, or in the air was apparent when Angelo Mathews attacked with spin in the first half-hour. How staggering then, that Lakmal only conceded two boundaries in his 16 overs. One of those was an inside-edge past the stumps.

Typically for Lakmal, the dismissals were anything but spectacular. He has probably never bowled a miracle ball that pitches on leg and hits the top of off stump. But he knows he is among the best Sri Lanka have, and he is desperate to do that calling justice.

The ball that dismissed Dean Elgar moved just a few inches off the seam, to take his outside edge. The delivery that bested AB de Villiers jagged in even less, before collecting the inside edge, then the stumps. Hundreds of bowlers all around the world will feel they can deliver exactly those two deliveries, many even with better pace. But that is not the point for Lakmal. Elgar's wicket was about the 20 dot balls he had delivered to the batsman before drawing the mistake. De Villiers' dismissal was about the choke-hold Lakmal and his team-mates had applied late in the third session.

Unsurprisingly, Lakmal has been drilled by a master of perseverance; a man whose cricketing life had been defined by accuracy and repetition. "Over the years, Lakmal has been bowling really well," bowling coach Chaminda Vaas said. "The only thing was to brush up his line and length and his patience. Bowling is like a mind game, and I've just told him to get his areas right. There is nothing for the seamers in Galle for the first few days, and we planned not to give runs for a few hours. They've stuck to that."

Lakmal was Sri Lanka's best bowler of the day, bowling six maidens and going at 1.81 an over, but Rangana Herath and Dilruwan Perera shared 64 overs between them, and refused to err themselves, even when batsmen sought to knock them off their lengths by advancing down the track.

Hashim Amla played a pained innings against their spin, and Faf du Plessis was inert in his first hour at the crease. The pitch only turned occasionally, but Perera and Herath will hope they have pinned South Africa down well enough to not concede a significant first-innings advantage. Days three, four and five is when they will expect to become a menace on this surface.

The hosts are by no means out of danger yet. Quinton de Kock hurt them in the last ODI and remains at the crease. JP Duminy is yet to bat. With Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander also capable of scoring runs, Sri Lanka must be more clinical with the tail than they were in England, if they are to retain hope of winning the Test.

But just when South Africa seemed set to indulge in torture on day one, Sri Lanka's attack ensured they did not swallow their own medicine, in a place they often win.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando