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

Spinners force South Africa to switch to attritional cricket

The discipline shown by Sri Lanka's spin trio squeezed South Africa to the point at which they shut shop. Their approach on day three will determine how the foundation ends up, on a pitch taking turn

Tap. Stand. Watch. Wait. Leave Alone. Repeat.

Tap. Stand. Watch. Wait. Block. Repeat.

Tap. Stand. Watch. Wait. Push. Run. Repeat.

Repeat all of the above. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

If you think watching that kind of cricket is tiring, imagine playing it. Imagine the concentration. Imagine how much of it you need to summon to switch on and off between each repeat. Imagine the restraint required to keep at it for more than four hours without making a mistake.

If you've managed that then you would have imagined what it was like to be Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers this afternoon.

For 43-and-a-half overs, they laid down a layer of what could become a foundation on which a mighty tower will stand. It may also end up like one of the many constructions sites in Dubai - unfinished and abandoned - but that will depend on how South Africa bat both on day three and at the end, when an SSC surface that has been maligned for its lack of life is expected to sizzle for the spinners. At least that's what Sri Lanka are hoping.

That they went into the match with a sole seamer and a slew of spinners should have told South Africa that either they were entering a snake pit or Sri Lanka had spotted something in them to exploit. The former is not true. If the SSC's surface was a serpent it would be the brown house variety. It can't do anything to you but in that moment where you are stunned by its sight, you will probably still scream.

That's what Sri Lanka were probably aiming for, especially in South Africa's top order. They were proved right within two overs. Rangana Herath had immediate success and did not have to rely on the track, his own technique or any great amount of turn to get it. He just needed Alviro Petersen's tardiness.

Petersen barely allowed himself a sighter before he hit Herath in the air, only to offer the bowler a return catch. It was a soft dismissal and may be one too many for the man who has not scored a century in 20 innings and has managed just three half-centuries in that time. However, he is the senior opening partner in South Africa's current combination, which may otherwise have afforded him some rope.

That does not mean Dean Elgar can consider himself safe. He is also on trial and although he made a fine witness in Galle, he will come under more scrutiny on Colombo where the challenges are different. In the first Test, Elgar played spin resolutely but showed there are vulnerabilities in his footwork.

Herath exploited that early on when he took pace off the ball and flighted it. Elgar was not sure whether to go forward or backward and ended up pushing awkwardly to short leg. Just as Elgar got some measure of Herath, the offspinner Dilruwan Perera was brought on and he had to readjust. When Perera tossed it up, Elgar's uncertainty saw him inside-edge to the man under the helmet.

That was the reason du Plessis had to play like it was the fifth day in Adelaide even though it was only the ninth over of South Africa's innings at the SSC. There was still a Test to save, albeit in a different sense. Had any more wickets fallen, South Africa could have been staring at an innings defeat in the face with not even half the match played.

Even though this surface is not expected to deteriorate or dust up as much as Galle did, if the spinners had been able to snare South Africa once, the mental scars could have been too much to recover from. After the bowlers had conjured up the commitment to come back strongly after a wicket-less first session and pluck Sri Lanka's last five for just 36 runs, du Plessis and Amla knew the team deserved more.

They shut shop and the scoreboard stayed almost as still as the stifling Colombo air and studied what they were up against. In Herath, they knew it would be the steadiness of a stooge - deliveries on a good length or a touch fuller, on the stumps or just outside off. In Mendis, it was the variation so watching the ball out of the hand was important. And in Perera, there was a hint of bounce and some turn.

The threat they offered did not rush like the raging waters of an angry sea but it had the potential to rise steadily like a flood because they offered what South Africa's spinners did not: discipline. While Sri Lanka could canter along collecting singles fairly easily, South Africa were squeezed. "You have to take a risk to score against them," du Plessis said. And risks were not what South Africa could afford.

In the first ten overs after the two early strikes, only 11 runs came. In the next ten, there were 17 runs. After Elgar's dismissal, South Africa managed just 58 runs and they lost du Plessis in the process. He was victim to the Midas of the day, Niroshan Dickwella, who flew to his left to collect a fine edge down the leg side.

There was the another example of concentration. Dickwella would have been made as drowsy by the South African resistance as anyone else but at the first hint of sound of an alarm, he leapt into life. Others may have hit snooze button.

Du Plessis' dismissal robbed South Africa of the man who batted them to draws in both Adelaide and Johannesburg. He is the one player who does not get worn down by the constant tap, stand, watch, wait, move, repeat sequence or if he does, he knows how to hide it.

As soon as AB de Villiers arrived, South Africa began moving a little quicker. De Villiers' method is to defend through counter-attack and Amla can adapt to anything required of him which means there may be a little more acceleration, especially because they are out of the danger zone for now. The further they can push forward, the greater the chance South Africa will think they have of securing the series.

Batting is going to be difficult, as is getting close to Sri Lanka's 421, but if it gets too much like wading through mud they can always revert to the default: Tap. Stand. Watch. Wait. Leave Alone. Repeat.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dheeban on July 26, 2014, 8:49 GMT

    Oh please, the pitch was not as bad to defend the 98-runs-from-52-overs attempt by South Africa. There is no way to defend them here. There are digging themselves a nice deep hole by playing for draw right from the 2nd session of the 2nd day. Inexplicable tactics by South Africa.

  • Android on July 26, 2014, 2:41 GMT

    one has got to respect Du Plessis and AB! Great players,Great people:) -from a Sri lankan:)

  • Dummy4 on July 26, 2014, 2:16 GMT

    Nobody was disappointed in the pitch when England prepared a greentop against India at Lords. The moment people see a typical spinning pitch, however, they scream 'road'. It is not a road, it may behave like that on day one, and then its assists the spinners. That is just a nature of a subcontinental pitch, and as pointed out, most of them do produce results. If you want to be no.1 in the world you have to be good in all conditions. I like SA team, but it is time people stop insisting their idea of pitch is the only right one.

  • David on July 25, 2014, 20:32 GMT

    During their first innings in Galle, posters here decried South Africa's batting, accusing SA of playing for a draw from day 1 because SA scored so terribly slowly, at 2.73 runs per over. At the end of day 1, SA looked vulnerable. Day 2 that changed.

    Sri Lanka's reply, in their first innings, was to score at a run-rate of 2.78 runs per over. They were faster by one run every 20 overs!

    In their second Galle innings, South Africa accelerated significantly, scoring at 4.09 runs per over - faster than Sri Lanka scored in their first innings in this test, here at the SSC. And then SA declared, setting an achievable chase for SL.

    Sri Lanka's second innings at Galle went at 3.02 runs per over, a little slower than their rate of 3.46 in this test's first innings, and a lot slower than South Africa's second knock at Galle! But, they were looking good in the chase at the end of day 4. Then on day 5 that changed.

    We have 3 more days for surprises. Expect them.

  • David on July 25, 2014, 20:02 GMT

    "Du Plessis' ... is the one player who does not get worn down"

    "De Villiers' method is to defend through counter-attack"

    Unquestionably, du Plessis is tireless in defense. In Adelaide, for 7 hours. 46 minutes & 376 balls he inched his way to a maiden test century. However, his partner for 4 hours, 220 balls, & only 33 runs, was a glacier next to Faf's snail. Faf sprinted at a run-rate of 29.25: his partner ambled at a rate of 15.

    His partner's method was to attack by not scoring, by offering no potential weakness to exploit, by negating all known strategies for him. His aim was to disrupt their thinking, to drain them in their search for for a chink in the unfamiliar armor he wore, for a hint at an untried tactic, for anything to get him to offer a stroke. From him they expected shots: they had no strategy for no shots.

    That partner was AB de Villiers, scorer of the 8th fastest test century.

    Appearances will deceive. de Villiers has more than one method of defense, and attack.

  • Dummy4 on July 25, 2014, 18:28 GMT

    South African approach is good. They have already 1 UP in the series. Draw will give them the berth of No.1 ranking. Amla is playing like 80s test batsman in this inning which is rare in current era but enjoyable.

  • c on July 25, 2014, 18:06 GMT

    Louis De Klerk: What exactly are you dissappointed in on this sub-continent SSC pitch? It has a historical record of 2/3 Tests producing results. The wicket so far has not behaved anywhere close to what people SAY it usually does. Commentators and writers are at a loss to explain how things will pan out the next 3 days. SA - like SL against PAK in UAE - are playing for a draw - which is fine cos their aim is to focus on regaining their #1 ICC ranking.

    I also noticed that Matthews actually adopted a fields placement that invited SA to go for runs (for obvious reasons cos it is not to SL's benefit to draw the Test). They must play to win. Less than 100 in over 50 overs? Hmmm...

  • Khehla on July 25, 2014, 16:58 GMT

    Have no problem with SA planning attritional cricket when required, and with a plethora of spin it might've been in this instance. That said, at some point during the day you need to put the pressure back to the bowlers by scoring runs for. For one, it moves the game along and puts the opponents on the back foot somewhat. Not scoring just stalls the game and if one loses their wicket the next batsman is already under pressure for the scoreboard isn't moving. So SA got their tactics wrong, I just hope they're not playing for a draw from the onset

  • Dummy4 on July 25, 2014, 16:37 GMT

    There is nothing wrong with the pitch, expect it needs to spin more

  • Dummy4 on July 25, 2014, 15:36 GMT

    Playing for the draw already. I don't particularly blame them, as it doesn't look like it will be easy to score the remaining 300+ runs, nor take 10 Sri Lanka wickets.

    Disappointed with the pitch. As soon as a subcontinent tour is announced, I am prepared for it, but still very disappointing.

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