Sri Lanka v South Africa, 2nd Test, SSC, 2nd day July 25, 2014

South Africa stymied by spinners

South Africa 98 for 3 (Amla 46*) trail Sri Lanka 421 (Jayawardene 165, Dickwella 72, Mathews 63) by 323 runs
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details

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Fernando: Dickwella handled mental challenges well

Flattest track in the world, eh? Ask the South Africa batsmen. They started to bat at the SSC midway through the second session of the second day, and during the 52 overs till stumps the run-rate never crossed two. Sri Lanka's trio of spinners teased and probed, Suranga Lakmal extracted some reverse swing, and the bad balls were virtually non-existent.

Rangana Herath needed five balls to get his first wicket. Offspinner Dilruwan Perera needed only three. If South Africa's batsmen did not already know they were in for a thorough interrogation of their technique against spin, the first hour of their innings made it absolutely clear.

Like Sri Lanka on Thursday, South Africa lost lost two wickets early. Sri Lanka had responded by caning the spinners to the tune of 4.86 an over during a 99-run stand between Mahela Jayawardene and Kaushal Silva. There was no similar response from South Africa after their lost their openers early - Alviro Petersen to a soft caught-and-bowler and Dean Elgar bat-pad. Faf du Plessis and Hashim Amla showed immense concentration and patience as they ground out 58 runs in nearly 30 overs.

There wasn't massive turn yet from the track, but Sri Lanka could turn to a variety of spinners who posed different challenges. Left-arm spinner Herath got the new ball and tested out the rough against the left-hand batsmen. Perera bowled conventional offspin with a pleasingly conventional action and should have had Amla caught-behind in the 26th over, only for the debutant keeper Niroshan Dickwella to miss a tough chance. Ajantha Mendis, playing only his third Test in more than three years, didn't have the same accuracy as the other two but his variations were enough to keep the batsmen guessing. Sri Lanka could even call on the part-time legspin of Kithuruwan Vithanage - he got some turn and several leading edges.

It was finally Lakmal who ended the du Plessis-Amla stand, though, when Dickwella took a superb one-handed catch diving to his left to send back du Plessis for 36.

South Africa still have their two best batsmen in the middle, but after 52 overs of bloody-minded resistance, they are still only 98 for 3. At the same stage, Sri Lanka were 205 for 3. What that punishing pace of scoring from Sri Lanka has done is allow them plenty of time to grill South Africa.

Sri Lanka maintained a similarly cavalier rate of scoring in the morning. Dickwella, who was in England earlier this week with the A side and not even in the Test squad, struck an enterprising debut half-century that drove Sri Lanka past 400. He is a schoolboy star like the man with whom he put on a century stand - Mahela Jayawardene - to ensure the first day's advantage was not squandered.

Jayawardene began the day unbeaten on 140 at his favourite ground, and Dickwella was in his first Test innings facing the pace of Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, but it was the youngster who dominated the opening hour.

There were plenty of signs of his confidence on the big stage. In the 97th over, he played a deliberate upper cut over slips off Morne Morkel on seeing that third man was square. The next delivery was tucked to the fine-leg boundary. As Dickwella ambled down the track keeping his eye on the ball, he bumped into Morkel, who responded with a shove. Dickwella doesn't even reach shoulder high for the towering Morkel, but his concentration didn't waver even after that encounter.

He skipped down the track to launch Vernon Philander over mid-on, and a delivery after Imran Tahir got the ball to rip from the rough, Dickwella countered with the reverse-sweep.

At the other end, Jayawardene was continuing with his silken batting - the blade barely passed the vertical as he coaxed a full ball from Steyn to the long-on boundary. Fifty-six runs came in the first hour, and South African spirits were beginning to sag.

As has been the case so often, South Africa got a lift with an outstanding bit of fielding. Petersen fired in a direct hit from fine leg to catch Jayawardene short on 165. A stylish innings ended with Jayawardene on his knees and desperately scrambling to complete the second.

That wicket seemed to affect Dickwella; he went loose outside off, repeatedly chasing wide deliveries. He survived till lunch, though, but after the break South Africa mopped up the tail quickly to end Sri Lanka's innings at 421. Tahir ended a 315-ball wait for a Test wicket by getting Perera to clip a ball to wide mid-on, Dickwella was run-out by Quinton de Kock while attempting a leg-bye and Philander soon had reward for his consistent bowling.

That only set the stage for a harrowing examination against spin. Three more days of that stand between South Africa and the No. 1 ranking.

Siddarth Ravindran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo