South Africa will enter the last two days of the Boxing Day Test needing to achieve the highest successful fourth-innings chase to beat Sri Lanka in Durban, break a so-called jinx, and close out the series against Sri Lanka. It's a tall order for a line-up that was shot out for 168 in their first innings, against an attack that many rated as incapable of 20 wickets in a Test match.
With a task of this magnitude, South Africa can afford to be philosophical about what lies ahead. Gary Kirsten, the head coach, said one of the key things for them is simply to believe. "The one thing we do know is that it's an opportunity for someone to do something special and be a hero for their country," said Kirsten. "At the end of the day, we've got to dig ourselves out of this hole."
The hole was created by a poor first-innings effort with the bat, which showed a distinct lack of application by some of the side's most senior players, such as AB de Villiers and Ashwell Prince. It was deepened by a lacklustre showing with the ball, in which the bowlers leaked 249 runs in the day, of which more than half came in the second session.
Sri Lanka scored 142 runs between lunch and tea and lost just two wickets. It was in that passage of play that Kumar Sangakkara came into his own and marched to his first century in the country as though he owned the place. Kirsten admitted the bowlers lost their way.
"We probably had a poor second session where we didn't really stick to our plans," he said. "We got a bit both sides of the wicket and we didn't do a good holding job. You'd like one of your seamers to be able to bowl one side of the wicket. They are all talented and skilled enough to do that."
"All these guys are capable of getting big scores. It's still a fairly good batting wicket. The pitch played pretty well today, which is a good sign."Gary Kirsten
South Africa's lack of a containing bowler has been lurking as a problem since they dropped Paul Harris for Pakistan-born legspinner Imran Tahir. It did not stand up as a real concern when they were shooting sides out, like Australia for 47 in November and Sri Lanka for 180 and 150 in the last Test. In those instances, the attack was under no real pressure to stop the run flow, as they were today in Durban. When they were, Vernon Philander, who brought what Graeme Smith has called a "degree of control", had stepped in.
With the prolific wicket-taker, Philander, out of the side because of a knee injury, South Africa have no-one to stem the tide. Jacques Kallis was unable to, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Tahir were too focused on taking wickets, and Marchant de Lange was trying to repeat his heroics of the first innings while finding his feet. Too many short balls were wasted, too many boundaries were allowed to be scored and Sri Lanka were given enough rope to run away.
The lack of consistency in South Africa's performances is now glaring and Kirsten said they are trying to find a way to string together more than one strong showing. "What we've been trying to focus on is how we stack up the days and how we play the sessions," he said. "What is concerning for us all is that we can have two really good sessions and then have a blow out session. We need to focus on ways and means of stopping the bleeding."
There is little they can do to close the wound with the ball, so it will fall to the batsmen to do the repair job, something which seems fair, considering they are the chief cause of South Africa's current position. "You are always chasing the game when you get bowled out for a score like that," said Kirsten, adding a clean slate will be needed in the second knock. "We've got to look at it like a first innings, like you are setting up a total. All these guys are capable of getting big scores. It's still a fairly good batting wicket. The pitch played pretty well today, which is a good sign for the rest of the Test match."
Although deterioration of the surface is expected, Kirsten has to think positively because South Africa have to find some inspiration and he may be the man to provide it. Twelve years ago, he did something special at this ground. Kirsten made a then-South African record score of 275 to save the third Test against England. The Proteas need an effort which mirrors that one to win this match. "It's a great opportunity for someone to be a hero. These are the reasons why we play the game," he said. "I am still quite excited by what can come out of this Test match."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent