Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent
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When the Sri Lankan team watched the sun set behind Table Mountain two evenings ago, the possibility of winning their first series in South Africa still existed. Now, not even halfway into the deciding Test match and their focus has shifted substantially. Instead of their sights set on a massive upset they are looking only for a draw as they aim to share the spoils in this series.
Geoff Marsh, Sri Lanka's coach, admitted their poor first day, in which they conceded 347 runs and took just three wickets, cost the chance of shooting for the stars. "We have to play catch up cricket now," said Marsh. "But if we manage to avoid the follow-on then that will open the game up a little bit."
Sri Lanka still require 232 runs to avoid the possibility of being asked to bat again at Newlands. With the amount of time left in the game, they will have to put in a supreme stand at the crease to deny South Africa their first series win at home since 2008, something Marsh thinks the hosts are anxious to achieve.
When Graeme Smith declared, 40 minutes before tea, the decision was somewhat surprising because South Africa could have pushed the advantage. Marsh said he expected Smith to call time on South Africa's innings because of the importance of clinching the contest. "They've got to win the game to win the series so we thought we would be batting at that time," said Marsh. "They have to give themselves time to bowl us out twice."
Marsh believes Sri Lanka's line-up is talented and tough enough to put up adequate resistance. "If we bat well, we are capable of making big scores," said Marsh. "We've got some very good Test cricketers with some very good averages and we would expect what we were doing to back that up."
The back up started with captain Tillakaratne Dilshan, who scored an aggressive 78, before falling in a typical fashion, attempting a big shot over long-on. It is his best effort of the tour and his first half-century in the three Tests. Had he still been at the crease, Sri Lanka would have slept easier. "We'd love to have been one down," said Marsh but added that the team was grateful for the start Dilshan gave them. "Dilshan plays the way Dilshan plays, that's why he is so dangerous. It's always good when Dilshan gets runs because he gets them so quickly. He himself wants to be a bit more consistent. Today he batted beautifully. It's a pity he got out."
Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene are currently at the crease. The pair hold the world-record partnership for any team with their third-wicket stand of 624 against South Africa in Colombo. Although that was achieved in completely different circumstances, it is a performance that Sri Lanka will likely draw some inspiration from.
The strip itself may provide the rest of the motivation. From their first day's toil, Sri Lanka know that taking 20 wickets on a batsmen-friendly pitch will be a challenge for any side. Sri Lanka struggled to make breakthroughs on a pitch that didn't offer much assistance and a batting line-up determined to attack.
More than inexperience, it was the lack of surety that affected Sri Lanka's bowlers and may be the reason they miss their chance at history. If they do, they can take some consolation in knowing that they have been described as the sub-continental side that has made the biggest strides by South African stalwart Jacques Kallis. "In previous years sub-continent sides have struggled with the bounce in South Africa but they have all improved the way they've played the pace and bounce," he said. "And I think Sri Lanka have improved the most."
When the sun sets on the Test series in three days time, Marsh said his team do not want it to go down with them left wondering about what could have been. "To beat real good sides, you can't make mistakes but the boys are really keen," he said. "They don't want to just play the last Test, win that, and then play badly in this Test."