It has taken almost a month but Sri Lanka were finally made to feel welcome in South Africa on an unusually cracked, dry Wanderers surface and they made themselves completely at home. They earned their first win on the tour and leveled the three-match series by bowling South Africa out for their third-lowest score in a T20, lowest against Sri Lanka and lowest in Johannesburg – but it came at a cost.
Angelo Mathews twisted his ankle with seven balls to go in the chase and expects to be out for a “couple of weeks”. He could not run between the wickets at the end, but saw Sri Lanka to victory with two last-over sixes. Mathews joins an injury list that already includes Nuwan Pradeep, who will return home with a hand fracture, and Danushka Gunathilaka, who has not played a match because of a back problem.
But those concerns were for later. Mathews’ unbeaten half-century topped off a day when he was rewarded for just about every bowling change and, for the first time on the tour, looked a man properly in charge of those under his command.
In contrast to the conservative approach he took in the Tests, Mathews set attacking fields against an over-eager South Africa line-up and got the results he wanted, especially for Lakshan Sandakan. The left-arm wrist spinner claimed four wickets on debut and did his bit to befuddle the hosts, who played as though they were expecting the usual bounce and carry and did not adjust to the slower pace of the pitch.
Had Sri Lanka batted normally, they would have strolled to victory but weeks of being under the pump appeared to have to taken its toll. Their nerves threatened to derail them even more than Lungi Ngidi, who followed up on Friday night’s Man-of-the-Match performance with a four-wicket haul. Ngidi bowled at good pace and plucked wickets every time he had the ball in hand, starting with a double strike in his second over.
After Niroshan Dickwella got Sri Lanka off to a confident start, Dhananjaya de Silva pulled Ngidi to David Miller to give South Africa an opening. Two balls later, Kusal Mendis widened it when he tried to hit Ngidi over the off side but missed and saw his middle stump taken out.
Dickwella made up for the early lapses by taking on Andile Phehlukwayo to get the Sri Lanka chase back on track. He hit three consecutive fours off, all in the fine-leg area, as Phehlukwayo struggled to get his line tight enough. But when Dickwella tried to be as attacking against Ngidi, he failed.
South Africa sensed an opportunity to squeeze Sri Lanka, despite them having their two most experienced batsmen at the crease. Mathews and Dinesh Chandimal did not find the boundary for six overs while Imran Tahir and Aaron Phangiso operated in tandem and the required run rate climbed.
Phehlukwayo allowed Mathews to break the drought and the Sri Lanka captain then sent Phangiso over long-off to warn South Africa he was not going to go down quietly. Jon-Jon Smuts was brought on in the 14th over and then Ngidi at the other end, by which time Chandimal had had enough of being patient. He went after Ngidi and nicked off to leave it to Mathews to finish things.
Three more partners deserted the captain and Sri Lanka needed nine runs off the last eight balls before Mathews himself showed signs of strain. He raced through for a leg-bye but had to put in a dive after rolling his ankle, and then had to stand and deliver the result.
It should never have become that difficult for Sri Lanka after South Africa’s below-par batting performance that reeked of inexperience. The new look top order did scant justice to their call-ups by squandering starts. Smuts was caught at short fine leg, flicking off the pads, and Theunis de Bruyn handed a catch to deep square leg to put South Africa in early trouble at 13 for 2 in the fourth over. Mangaliso Mosehle, who was promoted to No. 4, was caught behind chasing a wide ball off Sandakan’s first delivery.
Heino Kuhn showed slightly more composure but when his assault on spin ended – he went after a Sandakan googly that beat his outside edge and was stumped – South Africa sunk deeper. De Silva had Miller caught at slip, trying to sweep a ball that gripped and turned, and Sandakan removed the two allrounders, Wayne Parnell and Andile Phehlukwayo, in the space of three balls, both reverse-sweeping. South Africa were 74 for 7 in the 12th over and it was up to Behardien to try and get them to something respectable.
He had Phangiso for company and they shared in the best partnership of the innings – 33 for the eighth wicket – during which they identified Asela Gunaratne as the man to target. He tried to take pace off the ball but did not threaten with his lengths and South Africa got away with a few.
Just as it seemed South Africa were settling, Mathews brought left-armer Isuru Udana back and Behardien was caught off an inside edge attempting an expansive drive. Tahir and Phangiso could not last the full complement of overs and South Africa were bowled out halfway through the final over. They would have known their total was unlikely to be enough but might not have expected it to be so close.