Led by a blazing century from Tillakaratne Dilshan and a brace of cameos, the world's No. 5 team started their Champions Trophy campaign in fine style by beating the top-ranked side. Graeme Smith's decision to field was based on the lack of dew in the afternoon but none of the bowlers, barring Dale Steyn, made an impression. Dilshan's 92-ball 106, coupled with significant inputs from captains past and present, lifted them to a daunting total that was well beyond South Africa.
Sri Lanka carried the energy from their powerful batting display into the field and Ajantha Mendis, unlike the home side's spinners, extracted bounce and turn under lights. Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis showed signs of dominance with an 81-run stand in quick time but once Smith was bowled off Mendis' first delivery, and Kallis and JP Duminy fell in successive balls, Sri Lanka could apply the chokehold.
Smith had a smile on his face when the toss went his way and Steyn nipped out Sanath Jayasuriya, but it was soon replaced by a frown. In a 158-run partnership with Kumar Sangakkara, who provided solid support with 54 from 74 balls, Dilshan played anchor and aggressor in equal measure. The first to feel Dilshan's force was Wayne Parnell, preferred to Makhaya Ntini; he struggled to hit a consistent length and went for 39 in five overs. It was a recurring trend in those early overs, Parnell dragging the ball down and Dilshan finding the deep point and midwicket boundaries. Albie Morkel was thrashed for 22 in two overs as Sri Lanka reached 100 in the 13th over.
The onslaught forced Smith, who refused to delay the Powerplay, to turn to his spin pair to try and stop the destruction. The pair stemmed the flow of boundaries but lacked bite and Sri Lanka ticked along at over six an over. Dabs, drives, flicks, shots off angled bats, and punches all evaded fielders and Sangakkara brought up his first half-century since February. He fell to an innocuous delivery from Duminy, after which Dilshan's boundary blasting - he hit 16 fours and a six - ended when he slashed the first ball of Steyn's return over to third man.
Sri Lanka used the platform extremely well and crossed 300 thanks largely to Mahela Jayawardene's 77 off 61. He was his usual deft self: cutting, nudging and pushing into the gaps with excellent timing. His feet constantly moved as he made room to create singles and, with Thilan Samaraweera playing in a similar vein, Sri Lanka pressed ahead. Before South Africa knew it Jayawardene was on 41 off 40 balls - the majority of those runs coming from controlled paddles and sweeps - and the stage was set for a late surge; the final ten overs cost 85. Parnell gave some respectability to his figures by dismissing Jayawardene and Samaraweera in successive deliveries though by then Sri Lanka were 297 for 5 in the 47th over.
Chasing more than a run a ball from the start, South Africa needed a strong platform. They were in early trouble when Hashim Amla was cleaned up by Angelo Mathews off an inside edge in the third over. Kallis joined Smith, looking leaner having shed a few kilos, and the pair milked the wayward Nuwan Kulasekara, who seemed to have contracted Parnell's problem of bowling short. Kallis was quick to punish him and Kulasekara's fifth over went for 14, with Smith particularly strong through the off side.
While Smith danced down the track at will and shuffled about to unsettle the fast bowlers, Kallis chose to clip the ball sweetly from the crease. Smith looked increasingly confident at the crease, but playing for a Mendis offbreak he missed one that skidded and hurried on and had his leg stump pegged back.
Mendis had again proved a valuable go-to man for his captain by ending the flourishing partnership. Smith's bullish start hinted at the possibility of a Dilshan-style ambush, but inside four overs Mendis ripped the heart out of the batting order. Kallis showed glimpses of his class in compiling a brisk 41 before he was excellently caught at mid-off by a tumbling Mathews. Next ball, Duminy was castled by a flipper.
The required run-rate was already above seven at 113 for 4 in the 21st over, placing too much pressure on the rest of the order. Lasith Malinga, having bowled just one over at the start, returned to dismiss AB de Villiers and later snapped a gung-ho stand between Morkel and Johan Botha before rain interrupted the chase. At that stage Sri Lanka were well in command, and were later adjudged deserved winners.
Sri Lanka had previously lost only once after posting a 300-plus total in one-day internationals and, led by Mendis, the masters of asphyxiation struck. Adapting to early-season South African conditions superbly, Sri Lanka have taken the lead in showing that Asian teams are a force to be reckoned with in this tournament. South Africa, frustratingly, have shown again why their ability in multi-team tournaments has long been questioned.
Jamie Alter is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo