Match Analysis

Much to be admired in South Africa's stonewalling approach

South Africa's go-slow approach may not have been attractive, but it was effective in driving the opposition to desperation. They never shook the belief that they deserved to take the series

The day the Netherlands lift the football World Cup, Sergio Garcia triumphs in a golf major or David Ferrer is crowned Grand Slam champion, they will have a supporter in all of us. All three have been top competitors for significant periods but have not pushed on to the big prize. When they do, we will acknowledge that this time, after all that trying, they 'deserved' it.
Deserve - To earn something; to have a claim over it; to warrant calling it your own.
In sport, we often use the word 'deserve' incorrectly because we hope the person or team who we think has been more enterprising or shown more heart will win. If they do, we believe they earned it. On those grounds, we may feel Sri Lanka deserved more from the Colombo Test because, as even AB de Villiers admitted, they "played more of the cricket in this match." But we would be wrong. South Africa were the deserving ones: of a draw and of a series win because you cannot consider the SSC Test in isolation.
South Africa went into it 1-nil up in a series they were probably expected to lose. All they needed was to hold onto that advantage to claim the series and regain the No.1 ranking they let slip three months ago. If it was the World Cup final, they would have been the team that took the early lead and we all know what happens after that. Buses, fleets of buses are parked one behind the other. All that matters is blocking the way, not finding a new road to drive on.
Before the second Test even began, South Africa were gearing up for something like this. When Hashim Amla was asked whether he would be satisfied with a draw or if he would try to push for a clean sweep, he said the team would reassess after the first two days. By the end of day two it was clear South Africa had decided on the former.
They conceded 421 in the first innings so carving out a win, in the simplest terms, would mean scoring more than 600 and trying to bowl Sri Lanka out to avoid batting last. That meant they had to score quickly. South Africa ruled that possibility out by the way they batted: slowly. Their run-rate barely peeped over two an over, which they attributed to Sri Lanka's spinners and their unwavering discipline, but it could also have been because of a premeditated mindset.
After 98 runs were scored in 52 overs on the second day, it seemed inconceivable that this match would produce the tension that the final day brought. South Africa continued operating with surgical coolness and pragmatism, forcing Sri Lanka to get more and more desperate.
Sri Lanka were made to bat quickly, even recklessly, in their second innings to set South Africa a target. Then the captain Angelo Mathews had to consider how much was too much for a side that had, just seven months ago, threatened to make new Test history by chasing over 450 against India. Of course, Mathews would have known that conditions at the Wanderers were far more conducive to run-scoring than the SSC - especially the surface South Africa batted on - but he would still have been aware of South Africa's stubbornness. They had also seen off Australia in Adelaide 18 months ago. Like Sri Lanka in this match, that Australian side was also a bowler down, theirs through injury, Sri Lanka's because Ajantha Mendis was not offering much.
If that wasn't enough for Mathews to be mulling over, there was also the weather. Rain had stayed away from the first three days but had stolen 65 minutes of play from the fourth and more was forecast for the fifth. With all that on his mind, Mathews set a target which he felt was sufficient to put Sri Lanka on the victory path but against this South African side you never know.
That is what Amla and co. thrive on. They sprinkle the opposition's game plan with uncertainty. Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers dealt with even the best deliveries, dead-batting them into the ground. JP Duminy, with his exaggerated stride forward and awkward shouldering of arms against spin, was content to collect just six runs in the match - three in each innings - and face 123 balls for that.
Once they get through all of that, there's Vernon Philander who can no longer be grouped in the tail. He is not afraid to go forward and smother the turn or stay back and try to swat it away. He trusts his own technique more than most top-order batsmen do.
Watching South Africa play when they are in this mood can become difficult. It is not immediately eye-catching especially in an era where Test cricket has become more aggressive. It takes patience. But like anything that takes patience, if you have enough of it, there was a lot to be admired in South Africa's approach.
They sat back and waited for Sri Lanka to make all the moves. Who to bowl, when to bowl them, to attack or defend, how quickly to bat, how many overs to give themselves and how many runs. None of those decisions were South Africa's to make. They made them correctly in Galle. In Colombo it was up to Sri Lanka to do the same and South Africa were happy to be spectators in that process.
In some ways, it was similar to March 2012 in Wellington - the third Test of a series South Africa were also 1-nil up in. There was rain around and South Africa seemed to have scored more than enough runs to push for a win but Graeme Smith waited what seemed like an unnecessarily long period of time before declaring. He did not even bother to dangle a carrot. Later he explained: "I don't think New Zealand deserved anything more."
There's that word again. New Zealand did not merit even getting a sniff, according to Smith because South Africa, he believed, had earned the right to win the series. It may not have been pretty or memorable but it was efficient and it got the job done.
Some elements of a team is judged by the way they play the game and South Africa's "negativity", as Kumar Sangakkara called it in this Test, may not have frustrated some. But the ranking of a team is judged by its results and South Africa are back at No.1. That is what deserve really means.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent