Spinners force South Africa to switch to attritional cricket

Faf du Plessis goes on the attack AFP

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.