South Africa took little time in closing out an innings and 45-run victory over a depleted Sri Lanka in the first Test on Tuesday (29 December 2020) as the tourists' promising start to the match and the series was undone by a string of injuries.
Four of the five Sri Lankans to get hurt during the Test still came out to bat in a vain effort to save their team, but it didn't matter.
South Africa's fast bowlers needed just over a session on the fourth day to finish off Sri Lanka's second innings. Sri Lanka, starting the day 65-2 and facing defeat, was bowled out for 180 in 46.1 overs.
Allrounder Dhananjaya de Silva was the one casualty who wasn't able to bat at all because of his thigh injury, meaning South Africa needed just nine wickets in the end to win.
South Africa took five wickets in the day's first session and finished Sri Lanka off with the last two wickets less than half-an-hour after lunch, despite some resistance from Kusal Perera (64) and Wanindu Hasaranga (59).
South African pacers Lungi Ngidi, Anrich Nortje, Wiaan Mulder and Lutho Sipamla all collected two wickets each in the innings.
Sri Lanka's heavy defeat was the result of a marked turnaround in the Test after the Sri Lankans made a strong start, posting 396 in the first innings for their best Test total in South Africa.
But Sri Lanka was depleted by the stream of players leaving the field injured: de Silva left on the first day while batting, fast bowler Kasun Rajitha was injured on Day 2 having bowled just 13 deliveries, and bowlers Lahiru Kumara and Hasaranga and batsman Dinesh Chandimal were hurt on Monday.
"We were in the driving seat … but unfortunately we lost a couple of bowlers and that's how it ended up like this," Sri Lanka captain Dimuth Karunaratne said.
The absence of frontline quicks Rajitha and Kumara especially exposed the Sri Lankan bowling attack and South Africa's batsmen were ruthless in the one innings they needed to settle the game.
Karunaratne said Rajitha and Kumara would not have time to recover before the second and final Test, which starts at the Wanderers in Johannesburg on Sunday.
But he expected key bowler Suranga Lakmal to have recovered from the hamstring injury which kept him out of the first Test, while fast bowler Dushmantha Chameera was waiting in the wings.
"We have another game to go and I will try to keep them together. We need to keep a positive mindset. Suranga and Dushmantha can do a good job for us," he said.
South Africa made 621 in its first innings in response to Sri Lanka's 396, with 199 from Faf du Plessis, 95 from Dean Elgar and half-centuries from three other players.
Du Plessis missing out on a first career double-century by one run was the only semblance of disappointment for the Proteas.
"Unfortunately one short, but it's always good to contribute in a big way to set your team up for a win," du Plessis said.
Both teams were playing their first Test since January after having series canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, and Sri Lanka's injury woes have been partly caused by the virus, coach Mickey Arthur said.
Lockdowns and curfews gave the squad little chance to prepare for the tour to South Africa, with no three- or four-day warmup matches in the buildup to this series. The Sri Lankans' only preparation was a domestic Twenty20 competition.
The second Test in Johannesburg follows quickly, and Sri Lanka may need to change nearly half its team depending on the seriousness of the injuries. De Silva is definitely out for the final Test, while Rajitha and Kumara are unlikely to be fit.
"If the world was normal I don't think we'd be in this situation," Arthur said, "because I think the conditioning would be perfect and I think the guys would be ready to go.
"Luckily we brought 21 players, otherwise it would be batting coach Grant Flower at No. 3 and me at No. 4 in the next Test."
New South African captain Quinton de Kock said South Africa’s first Test win since the corresponding match against England at the same venue last December "feels really good".
De Kock said he was disappointed with South Africa’s bowling performance at the start of Sri Lanka’s first innings but "we came back nicely" towards the end of the innings.
He said a strong batting performance had been set up by openers Dean Elgar and Aiden Markram, who put on 141 for the first wicket.
"Getting off to a great start always helps the team. There were quite a lot of demons in the wicket but they played some great cricket shots and showed great intent and that filtered through to the rest of the batting line-up."
He praised Du Plessis and Temba Bavuma for rebuilding the innings after a flurry of wickets left South Africa on 220 for four. "It’s important that senior guys in the team stand up. There’s no better person to have in that situation than Faf."
Looking ahead to the second Test, De Kock said he was encouraged by the way the bowlers performed in the second innings. "The seamers came out with great intent with the ball and to finish it off the way we did was very pleasing."
South Africa went into the first Test with an inexperienced pace bowling line-up, with the four seamers only having 12 previous caps and 35 wickets between them.
They are likely to be bolstered by the return of Kagiso Rabada, who has played in 43 Tests, but De Kock said new cap Lutho Sipamla and allrounder Mulder, playing his second Test, had both performed well.