Suranga Lakmal picked up four wickets in an innings for only the second time in a 32-Test career as South Africa ended the first day of their Test series against Sri Lanka at a vulnerable 267 for 6. It was a strange, seesawing day in which it was hard to say if South Africa failed to make full use of good batting conditions or if Sri Lanka’s bowling attack was too reliant on Lakmal to fully exploit a greener-than-usual St George’s Park pitch. It may need South Africa to bowl on this surface for a complete picture to emerge.
Faf du Plessis trusted history, which said this was among the slower surfaces in South Africa, over the appearance of the pitch, and conditions proved to be a mixed bag. South Africa’s openers added 104 and all of their top five got starts, but none of them carried on beyond 63. None of them were really at fault for their dismissals apart from JP Duminy, who top-scored and gave his wicket away in one of the hinge moments of the day.
Perhaps Sri Lanka could have had South Africa in a worse position had Lakmal enjoyed better support from the two other frontline quicks. It was instructive that when Sri Lanka took the second new ball – as soon as it became available – it was Angelo Mathews who shared it with Lakmal rather than Nuwan Pradeep or Dushmantha Chameera. It was also instructive that Sri Lanka’s second-most successful bowler on the day wasn’t a seamer but the ageless Rangana Herath, whose dismissals of Duminy and Temba Bavuma, both against the run of play, changed the complexion of the day.
When Duminy decided to sweep Herath in the 71st over of the day, South Africa were 213 for 3. Duminy was batting on 63 and was looking in the form of his life, driving like a dream through mid-off and extra-cover. The ball wasn’t the safest to sweep. It was pitching outside off stump, but not far enough outside off stump for the batsman to be able to use his front pad as a second line of defence if it turned past his bat. Duminy missed, Herath hit front pad, and DRS could not save the batsman when he reviewed the on-field decision.
Four overs later, Herath hurried one on with the arm to beat Temba Bavuma’s back-foot defensive. This time the on-field decision was not out, and the ball looked like it may have been sliding down leg. Herath didn’t look convinced himself, but with only 5.1 overs left for the reviews to be reset, Sri Lanka chanced their arm, and ball-tracking returned three reds and sent Bavuma back. South Africa had slipped from 213 for 3 to 225 for 5.
Du Plessis and Quinton de Kock saw off Lakmal’s first over with the second new ball, and when de Kock flicked and slashed him for two fours in the second over of his spell – his 20th of the day – it seemed that the day’s efforts might have been telling on the fast bowler. But he was still more than capable of bowling the wicket-taking ball: de Kock took a single to bring du Plessis on strike, and out came the perfect line to pin du Plessis to the crease, the perfect line to make him poke, and a bit of outswing to graze his edge through to first slip.
The same ingredients had contributed to his first three wickets as well. All three came at the start of new sessions. South Africa went to lunch 92 for 0. Lakmal shaped one away from the right-handed Stephen Cook, then shaped another away from the left-handed Dean Elgar, and suddenly Dinesh Chandimal had two catches behind the wicket and South Africa were 105 for 2. Duminy and Hashim Amla then added 78, before Lakmal struck in the third over after tea, angling the ball into Amla and then moving it away to find his edge through to Chandimal once again.
Amla fell for 20, and his average dipped below 50 for the first time since November 2012. It had been a strange innings, his strike rate 26.31, made stranger by Duminy’s fluency at the other end.
The left-handed Duminy scorched the very first ball he faced to the cover boundary, while the right-handed Amla took 56 balls to hit his first four, stepping down the track to whip Rangana Herath wide of mid-on. Duminy flowed onto the front foot and got his head over the ball at every opportunity, while Amla was often crease-bound after making that big back-and-across trigger movement. Duminy found the gaps without even trying, while Amla timed drives and punches sweetly but straight to fielders.
Still, it took a peach of a delivery to dismiss him. Lakmal always looked capable of delivering one. Less so Nuwan Pradeep and Dushmantha Chameera, who were wayward through the day, and released the pressure on South Africa’s openers with a steady stream of deliveries at their pads in an otherwise quiet first session.
Aside from the odd flirt outside off stump, the shuffling, fidgety Cook showed an excellent understanding of his own game. He took full advantage of anything remotely near his pads, and scored the bulk of his runs – 41 out of 59 – through the leg side, primarily through flicks and glances as well as one sweep in front of square against Rangana Herath.
Elgar showed excellent judgement outside off stump, leaving 39 of the 86 balls he faced from Sri Lanka’s three seamers, but was quick to pounce on anything overpitched, timing his drives sweetly through mid-off and extra-cover. Cook took the bulk of the strike during the opening partnership, facing 125 balls to Elgar’s 89.