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Match Analysis

Sri Lanka's rush for runs gives South Africa another home headache

Lessons from Lanka Premier League come to the fore in display of aggressive, smart cricket

Firdose Moonda
Firdose Moonda
Niroshan Dickwella sways inside the line of a short ball  •  AFP via Getty Images

Niroshan Dickwella sways inside the line of a short ball  •  AFP via Getty Images

They're back. And they seem to mean business.
Let's be honest, there are very few of us that expected Sri Lanka to return to South Africa after the coup they pulled off 22 months ago and establish control immediately, but that's what they've done. Through a get-runs-before-you-get-out approach, their batsmen are on the brink of recording their highest total in South Africa and have already asked South Africa to score more runs than they have in an innings in any format in the last year to get ahead.
And they're doing it all with a confidence not seen before from a travelling Sri Lankan team in South Africa; a confidence that is doubtless driven by the success of them becoming the first Asian side to win a series here in February 2019, and that has made them a more competitive and compelling opposition.
In choosing to bat first, Dimuth Karunaratne did what other captains from the subcontinent have not always done. He made what some would call a brave choice and gave his batsmen what others may interpret as permission to play freely.
It's an approach batsmen use when they expect things to be tough and they know that there will be a ball with their name on it. Until that ball comes, they aim to score and score quickly. Sri Lanka have become used to playing like this because their home surfaces demand it. There hasn't been a drawn Test on the island since 2014. Even though South African conditions present an entirely different challenge - swing, seam movement and bounce - Sri Lanka's strategy could be recycled. And it helps that they've just come off a tournament in which they've been able to practice such a mindset.
While Mickey Arthur described Sri Lanka's build-up to Test cricket as less than ideal because they have had no red-ball cricket since the middle of the year and came straight off a T20 competition, the Lanka Premier League has actually proved useful. Batsmen spent three weeks playing attacking cricket, and it has translated well to this tour. Without over-crediting the effects of a bit of smash-and-grab game-time, Niroshan Dickwella, Kusal Mendis, Dinesh Chandimal and Kusal Perera were among the top dozen run-scorers in the LPL and all of them looked assured in their strokeplay today. Of course, it didn't work out well for all of them - Perera and Mendis' enthusiasm cost them early on - but the loss of three first-hour wickets didn't scare them into changing their plans.
In slipping to 54 for 3 inside 11 overs, there was a danger that things could unravel, but instead they had Chandimal to bed in and Dhananjaya de Silva to keep driving onwards, and kept scoring at more than four runs an over. Between Chandimal and de Silva they negated South Africa's biggest threat: Anrich Nortje, who maintained his pace, which touched 150kph at times, but always not his discipline.
That Sri Lanka were able to hit the South African attack off their lengths said a lot about how the power dynamic is being drawn in this match. The debutant Lutho Sipamla bore the brunt of it, after being tasked with opening the bowling, and did not even find any lines at first. His first three overs cost 28 runs in a tough, almost LPL-esque, introduction to the international game.
Sipamla's struggles upfront point to a bigger issue facing South Africa in this series - inexperience. Before this match, South Africa's seamers had a total of 12 Test caps between them (Nortje - 6; Lungi Ngidi - 5, Wiaan Mulder - 1, Lutho Sipamla - 0). You have to go back to 1993 to find a less experienced pack. Then, Craig Matthews and Allan Donald had played in a combined 11 Tests and Fanie de Villiers was on debut, and the number of appearances would have been influenced by the fact that South Africa had only been back in international cricket for two years.
Ever since, South Africa have built their bowling around experience and they would have in this series too but Kagiso Rabada was ruled out with a groin injury, Beuran Hendricks (only one Test but 91 first-class matches old) had to be withdrawn from the squad and Vernon Philander has moved to the commentary box.
When the squad was announced, CSA claimed Ngidi would lead the attack, a big responsibility for someone who did not play any Test cricket in the last home summer because of injury and who has only played one first-class match this season. Instead, it's Nortje who has emerged as the headliner, but South Africa didn't even use him with the new ball.
That job was given to Sipamla, who has also only played one first-class match this summer, and whose last taste of international cricket - a T20 against England - was bitter. Then, Sipamla bowled 16 balls and was hit for 45. Today, he was the most expensive bowler in his team. At least today, Sipamla had senior players supporting him and time to improve. His later spells were more promising, as was Mulder's performance, of more modest pace but admirable accuracy.
Mulder enjoyed the most reward, ending the only individual innings that required grinding out, from Chandimal (who else?), and an audacious 49 from Dickwella in a late afternoon spell that kept South Africa interested, even as Sri Lanka tugged the advantage their way. Much will hinge on whether de Silva can bat again after he suffered a soft tissue injury and was helped off the field. If he can, Sri Lanka can aim for 400-plus and put themselves in a strong position to take the series lead. If he can't, Sri Lanka still have a score that South Africa will be concerned about, especially given their recent Test form - they've not more than 300 in any format since Mark Boucher took over as coach in 2019.
Boucher has spoken about introducing a brand of "aggressive, but smart" cricket to the team but has not fully explained the concept. Maybe he won't have to, because Sri Lanka's batsmen just did.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent