Sri Lanka take big lead despite Amla ton
Sri Lanka 421 and 11 for 0 lead South Africa 282 (Amla 139*, Perera 5-69, Herath 4-71) by 150 runs
Scorecard and ball-by-ball details
South Africa need only a draw at the SSC to regain the coveted No. 1 Test ranking and they batted as if that was their sole objective. Since the start of the innings midway through the second day, their batsmen have only been bothered about consuming time, deeming run-scoring as an unnecessary frivolity. Hashim Amla ground his way to his 22nd Test century, the first by a South African captain in Sri Lanka, and the second slowest of his career to avert the follow-on but not a 139-run first-innings deficit.
The other batsmen didn't have the runs to match the amounts of time they spent in the middle which meant that Sri Lanka's spinners were never put under pressure and were allowed to wheel away accurate over after accurate over. The pitch was no minefield, which made the South African strategy even harder to comprehend. There was turn, but nothing alarming. There were no grubbers or high-jumpers. And South Africa have some of the world's best batsmen against spin.
JP Duminy's 58-ball 3 was the South African innings in microcosm. He wasn't scoring runs, but he wasn't getting beaten, nor was he in serious trouble. There was a severe lack of intent though as he blocked or padded away everything that he could. He played 49 consecutive dot balls, before finally missing one and was stumped after the ball deflected off his pad.
The day began with Sri Lanka using their only quick to bounce the batsmen from round the wicket, not a tactic that flustered the overnight pair of Amla and AB de Villiers much. Suranga Lakmal overstepped regularly as well and was struck for three fours in an over by de Villiers. That made it five boundaries in seven deliveries as Amla had just put away a wayward Ajantha Mendis for a couple of fours. After dead-batting almost everything on Friday, South Africa started the day with more vigour.
However, once Sri Lanka decided to give their two best bowlers, Dilruwan Perera and Rangana Herath, extended spells, the scoring rate went comatose again. South Africa had only made 14 runs in nine overs before Perera made the breakthroughs that derailed them.
Perera isn't a big turner of the ball, but he got it to spin just enough to beat the inside edge as de Villiers looked to defend and got him lbw. Two balls later, he got one to spin just enough again to beat the outside edge of the left-handed Quinton de Kock and take the off stump. In a matter of minutes, South Africa had squandered what they gained over hours of attritional cricket.
In football, all-out defence is seen as a safe strategy. Here, South Africa's all-out defence is a high-risk tactic as that Perera over showed.
Still, Amla persevered, solid as ever. He unveiled some breathtaking inside-out drives against the spinners, typical whiplash punches off Lakmal, got both pads in front of the stumps to make an impassable wall if the ball pitched outside leg, and generally hanging on the back foot and trusting himself to adjust well enough to keep out any danger.
It was a monumental effort from him, the sixth longest by an overseas batsman in Sri Lanka and he remained unconquered after facing 382 deliveries. He has consumed more than 350 deliveries in an innings five times, and he has remained unbeaten on all those occasions.
For a while, it looked as if South Africa might struggle to avoid the follow-on, even with Amla going strong. Their cricketing catenaccio strategy would have been a complete failure if they had been forced to bat again. That didn't come to pass, though, as the tail gamely supported Amla. Dale Steyn took up 71 deliveries before holing out going for a third six, Imran Tahir used up an hour after tea before South Africa were bowled out near the close of play.
Though Sri Lanka have a sizeable lead, one concern for them is the workload of their main spinners, Herath and Perera. Both have already bowled more than 40 overs in the match, after sharing more than 150 overs in Galle. Mendis is the third specialist spinner but he struggled for line and length, forcing Mathews to give him only short spells. Sri Lanka will need more from him as they press for a series-levelling win over the next two days.
Siddarth Ravindran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo