Sri Lanka v South Africa, 2nd Test, SSC, 1st day July 24, 2014

Different means to same inadequate end for Tahir and Philander

Vernon Philander was disciplined, Imran Tahir less so. But it made little difference to them and South Africa as they slogged it out on a SSC pitch that offered little other than runs

Imran Tahir provided his team and himself with plenty of reasons to be frustrated © AFP

It had reached the time of day when even AB de Villiers was getting tired. An hour before the scheduled close, he had to chase a ball from slip to fine leg. De Villiers darted after it, collected and hurled it in but then could exert himself no more. He flopped onto his back, lay spread-eagled on the turf and even shut his eyes briefly before labouring back to his position.

In that small moment in which de Villiers showed that he too is human, he summed up how two of his team-mates may have been feeling. Vernon Philander and Imran Tahir went unrewarded on what was a trying day for South Africa's attack, but their reasons for being frustrated were completely different.

Philander turned in a performance that was many shades brighter than his dull Galle showing and deserved some reward but Tahir covered the whole spectrum of the rainbow again only to discover there is no pot of gold at the end. For South Africa to avoid the match slipping beyond them, they need all their bowlers to find the correct colour quickly.

Dale Steyn had his - a raging red - from the first match. With a hint of juice early on, he slurped it all up with two short balls that got him two wickets in two deliveries. Morne Morkel had his from Galle too. A cooler colour, purple perhaps, which contains equal measures of attack and defense.

When Allan Donald saw the canvas that would be used, which he described as "tacky", he knew Philander's mellow yellow could also offer something. Subtlety would be key on a surface that was not going to give much of anything besides runs. "I just knew the Vernon factor could come into play," Donald said.

Philander stuck to the disciplines that allowed him to keep a bowling average of below 20 for the first 23 games of his career: a line on or just outside offstump, seam movement and a fuller length. In his opening spell of six overs, he beat the bat three times, induced the edge twice - and once should have had a wicket for his troubles - and allowed the batsman to leave only six times. The others, he made them play.

He returned to do the same with the older ball later in the innings, even when he was used in two over bursts. Philander stayed away from the temptation to try the short ball which, at his pace, was ineffective in Galle and would have been equally so here. He made sure he stayed between the lines which may not sound exciting but in conditions that offer little to no assistance is necessary when he is trying to be a threat. Donald believes Philander is "not far away" from taking wickets and tomorrow morning may bear testament to that.

Distance will be on Imran Tahir's mind too, especially because 22 yards away from him JP Duminy is managing what he cannot: to take wickets. Tahir's major problem is inconsistency and if South Africa did not know that already, they had the opposition telling them that today with willow and words.

It took him just six deliveries to dish up a full toss and in his first spell he offered three more. The couple in his fourth over to Kaushal Silva were swatted to midwicket with the disdain they deserved. And this is what Silva had to say about Tahir afterwards: "He bowls good deliveries but I feel that sometimes he is not that accurate, so we get some loose deliveries. That's good for us because when we have loose balls, we can get the pressure off."

There you have it. Tahir is not doing what Claude Henderson asked him to earlier in the week - act as a container - because he is allowing the opposition a release. That may be because he is being introduced too early - Tahir made his first appearance in the 14th over today - but South Africa have no choice but to use him then because they do not have a fourth seamer. In future, bringing Duminy on earlier may yield tighter results.

It may also be because he is low on confidence. Desperation to make an impact, especially when your competitor is doing it with average deliveries - Duminy's first wicket came from a half-volley - can do that to a bowler. The knowledge that you made the wrong impression will also do that.

Donald identified the overs between 10 and 20 when Sri Lanka went from 33 for 2 to 91 for 2 as being where there was a "momentum shift", because "after a great start we got really sloppy". Tahir was operating in that period but whether he was doing in the right way will be questioned.

"Imran is an attacking bowler and he is always searching for wickets," Donald said. That was not what he should have been doing because taking wickets at that stage, when turn was almost non-existent - although someone pointed out that the ball needs to land on the pitch for it to actually turn - was not his primary job. His job was to tie up an end because, as Donald noted, all the ones and twos added up too quickly and South Africa were conceding heavily.

What will hearten them is that Tahir came back better in his later spells. He stopped rushing through and concentrated on going slower and slightly fuller. He bowled 13 overs in the middle period of the day and managed to send down just five full tosses and mix that up with five googlies. He only went for 42 runs in that second spell. In the third session, Tahir found sharp turn on occasion and showed more confidence in the use his variation and his flight.

Sri Lanka have picked three spinners for this match, which suggests they expect something dramatic to happen later on. That will give Tahir confidence that he could exploit more from the surface later on, which he will need to do to save his Test spot. Of course, by then South Africa could be batting and Sri Lanka will not want their men to get as tired as de Villiers was.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent