Stranded on a far-off island where one day's routine was hardly different from the next, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe put a cross in the ground and began to make a daily notch, hoping to wrap his mind around the passage of time.

Weeks wound by without change. Months melded into one another. When Crusoe was rescued, he learned that even with his wooden cross, he had not managed to accurately count the days he had spent cut off from civilisation.

On another island, also teeming with palm trees, but with fewer vindictive cannibals, the Sri Lanka attack had another day that seemed just like so many others they have recently endured. Younis Khan was their quick-footed tormentor this time, as he has been on many other occasions. By biding his time, and choosing his moments wisely, he moved to within 60 runs of scoring an unprecedented 2000 Test runs against Sri Lanka.

Patience is the Sri Lanka unit's style, though really, they have arrived at that method by process of elimination. There were hopes Ajantha Mendis would become the sharp end of the attack following Muttiah Muralitharan's retirement. Once opponents unraveled his secrets, what once appeared to be magic now seems like common trickery.

Attacking quicks like Dilhara Fernando did not prove effective enough to be retained. Even aggressive spinners like Suraj Randiv were tried for a while and then cut off, at least for now. The men that remained were those that were willing to run in and tirelessly repeat the same, well-rehearsed routine, just like castaways stuck in a Groundhog Day of toilsome survival.

In the past two series, Sri Lanka had long outings in the field in every match they have played. Bowling first at Lord's they had three down for 74, then four for 120, but ended up conceding 575 for 9. At Headingley, England were five down in 26.2 overs in the second innings, but it would take 90.3 more overs for Sri Lanka to eke out those final five wickets, on a turning fifth-day pitch.

At the SSC, South Africa defied the hosts for 134.5 overs in the first innings, then 111 in the next. Rangana Herath has now completed 517 overs since December 31 of last year. Wednesday must have felt like a day-long d j vu.

When South Africa had finished on 255 for 5 on another first day at Galle less than a month ago, bowling coach Chaminda Vaas had been upbeat about his attack's returns. Acting head coach Marvan Atapattu reasoned there was little more Sri Lanka could have done against Pakistan as well.

"The match situation has a lot to do with the wicket," Atapattu said. "It settled down, and that's the way it is in Galle. We played two fast bowlers and it doesn't do much after the first session. Slowing the run rate, and making it tough to score is what we can do when you get a wicket like this. If you can do that you can expect a poor shot, so that's our hope."

It is easy to sympathise with Atapattu and Sri Lanka, given the personnel available, but even on such tracks, opposition bowlers have found the means to be truly penetrative. Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel shared 16 wickets on a dry pitch to win that game for South Africa. Those two are nothing less than the best new-ball pair on the planet, but they did help illustrate how the X-factor can transcend conditions and transform a series.

Sri Lanka's wins this year have highlighted Shaminda Eranga and Suranga Lakmal's value, but beyond those two and Rangana Herath, Sri Lanka might do well to find bowlers who are a little more pizzazz and a little less working-class.

Test-quality pace bowlers are thin on the ground, especially when at least one of the two premier quicks has found a way to be unfit in every match since the fast men's demolition of Bangladesh in Dhaka, in January.

But there are options for Sri Lanka in the spin department. Twenty-one-year-old Tharindu Kaushal takes bagfuls with big-turning offspin almost every time he plays, and though he has been in two Test squads, the selectors are worried he does not yet have the control to squeeze opponents opposite Herath.

The time for a shake-up is approaching, however. In Muralitharan, and in Herath for a time, Sri Lanka had men that were at once workhorse and spearhead. But those are not roles that anyone but the supremely gifted can hold for long. Herath bowled two excellent balls to claim his wickets on day one, but if he is to have the workload that he has been saddled with this year, Sri Lanka cannot also expect him to be fresh enough to be a major wicket-taking threat as well.

South Africa had six fewer runs and had lost one more wicket than Pakistan at the end of their first day in Galle. In the end, they batted for most of the second day, hit 455 for 9, and seized control of that Test.

Sri Lanka require wickets while the ball is still new, and while there is still a little help from the pitch. Else, another long day when minutes drag and hours stretch may await them.