Vernon Philander and Kyle Abbott led South Africa’s fightback after they were bowled out for 286 early on day two, giving Sri Lanka no respite as they went to stumps seven down for 181. Dhananjaya de Silva was batting on 43 when bad light brought play to an early close, playing some sparkling strokes through the on side and profiting from an ageing ball that wasn’t moving nearly as much as it had done all the way up to tea.
But South Africa had inflicted plenty of damage by then, generating swing and seam movement off a greenish pitch that was now pockmarked by indentations made by the ball’s repeated impact. Abbott and Philander exploited this to the fullest by consistently hitting a fullish length in the channel outside off. Only Suranga Lakmal – who completed his maiden five-wicket haul in the morning session – had managed this among Sri Lanka’s frontline seamers.
There were few freebies for Sri Lanka’s batsmen: by stumps, only 41.98% of their runs had come through the leg side, despite a spike after tea when the wristy de Silva flicked balls off his stumps and Kagiso Rabada fed Rangana Herath a succession of deliveries directed down the leg side. South Africa’s batsmen, in contrast, had scored 59.09% of their runs in that half of the field.
Seam movement did for Kaushal Silva in the ninth over after lunch, after he had ground out 16 in just under two hours at the crease. Stretching out and following what appeared to be a full outswinger from Philander, he ended up playing a long way outside the line as the ball nipped back in and hit him flush on the front pad, in front of off stump. Silva and Mathews, both taking guard on off stump, had added 39 for the fourth wicket, keeping South Africa out for 13.5 uneasy overs after Sri Lanka had been reduced to 22 for 3.
Mathews had left well in the short period he spent at the crease before lunch, but was getting increasingly drawn into drives away from his body, his front foot not really getting too far forward or across. It brought him two crisply timed boundaries through cover, but also an ugly play-and-miss when Philander floated one fuller and wider.
Having been on the shorter side through his first spell, Rabada began bowling fuller when he came back in the second half of the post-lunch session, and persisted with that length even after Dinesh Chandimal had driven him to the cover point boundary. Reward arrived soon enough, as Mathews poked at one that left him, playing a long way outside his body, and edged to third slip. Rabada could have had another in his next over, when Chandimal nicked an away-swinger to the right of Quinton de Kock, only for the keeper to spill the low, diving chance.
It wasn’t too costly a miss. Chandimal only added 11 to his score before Philander had him lbw with an in-cutter that had initially seemed set to shape away in the air. Herath, putting everything into his pulls and swipes through the leg side, added 36 for the seventh wicket before becoming the 9999th batsman out lbw in Test cricket. Missing an ambitious reverse-sweep, he gave his fellow left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj his first wicket of the day.
The first three Sri Lankan wickets came from avoidable shots, but they were also the result of the lines and lengths Abbott and Philander bowled, which magnified the smallest error. Dimuth Karunaratne drove away from his body, and Abbott found a bit of inward movement to find his inside edge into the stumps. Then Kusal Perera, lucky not to have edged a flat-footed swipe at Abbott in the previous over, slashed at Philander and nicked behind. Ten balls later, Kusal Mendis looked to drive Abbott on the up, failing to account for late away movement, and Sri Lanka were 22 for 3.
In just eight overs, Abbott and Philander had transformed the mood of the Test match. Till then Sri Lanka had been the happier team, by far, having taken only 8.5 overs to wrap up South Africa’s lower order, sending them crashing from 267 for 6 to 286 all out.
It only took Sri Lanka only 4.4 overs to get their first wicket of the day, Nuwan Pradeep’s short-ball barrage inducing a top-edged pull from Philander, caught at deep square leg. In Pradeep’s previous over, Philander had gloved another pull, only for Dinesh Chandimal, diving to his left behind the wicket, to drop a sharp chance.
Chandimal, who had taken three catches on day one, soon got another opportunity as Lakmal produced the perfect fourth-stump outswinger to find Keshav Maharaj’s edge. A dive to the right, in front of first slip, gave Lakmal his best Test figures.
Then came a moment of madness from Quinton de Kock, who, desperate to stay on strike, called Abbott for a non-existent second run before sending him back, giving him no chance of beating Kusal Perera’s throw from deep point to the keeper. Pradeep then ended South Africa’s innings in the most emphatic manner, going around the wicket and bowling de Kock with an inswinging yorker.