It is rare in Tests that a team falls so far behind on the first day itself that the fate of the match is sealed.
With injuries running rampant in the Sri Lanka squad, making a comeback in an away Test was going to be a tall order. Ahead of the second Test, their head coach – Mickey Arthur – tweeted about the opportunity for some new players. Before any of them could allow their nerves to settle, three South African players – Wiaan Mulder, Anrich Nortje and Dean Elgar, in that order – blew the visitors away.
Mulder takes over after Perera’s promise
After opting to bat, the way Sri Lanka started the morning session now seems like a story from a different game. For 75% of the morning session, Sri Lanka were on top. Then, one over turned the narrative in the favour of the hosts.
It was a display of contrasting styles to start with. Lungi Ngidi was happy with being around 130 kmph while Nortje touched 145 from the other end. Kusal Perera smashed the first full ball he received through the offside, Dimuth Karunaratne got off the mark after 24 deliveries.
There was limited movement off the wicket for the new ball bowlers. The pair altered their lengths in search of the most conducive areas. The story remained similar for Lutho Sipamla who was in first-change in the seventh over. His inexperience made batting look further easy as he strayed down the Perera's leg frequently.
With his pace, Nortje did not take long to initiate a short ball plan. It did not work against Perera more so because of the width offered to the batsman looking for any license to throw his bat. A perfect short ball, from over the wicket, making Karunaratne play drew first blood after the Sri Lankan skipper gloved to his counterpart.
Perera went from 39 to 53 in four balls. He tonked Ngidi down the ground for consecutive fours and wrapped the over up with a two on the leg side. To the first ball he faced in the next over, he pulled an attempted bouncer by Sipamla that was fielded with as much lack of intensity by Ngidi at deep fine leg as his bowling throughout the day.
The first bowler to move the ball disconcertingly was Wiaan Mulder who came on as late as the 19th over. Even Perera respected his lengths and played out a maiden.
Mulder lifted South Africa on the first ball of his next over. To a ball at a good length, moving across him, Perera could not resist a poke that flew to gully. Perfect seam position, precise movement and right channels earned Mulder two in the over. Having already induced an edge off him earlier in the over that fell short of third slip, Mulder proved too hot to handle for Kusal Mendis who nicked him again, this time safely to first slip.
Bowling 63% of his balls at the good length as compared to 32% by other pacers in the first session, Mulder rocked Sri Lanka further. He picked his third wicket in as many overs. This time it was the turn of the second slip to have some catching practice with the edge from Thirimanne's edge.
Even with wayward lines to begin with, Nortje made merry at the other end after the debutant Minod Bhanuka got too confident after hitting a boundary a ball earlier and nicked the next one to first slip.
South Africa began the second session with the carnage wrecking pair of Nortje and Mulder from before the lunch interval.
Niroshan Dickwella counterattacked Mulder to start with. Taking a cue from Mulder's success, Nortje bowled fuller and induced an edge from Dickwella for Quinton de Kock to dive in front of the first slip to hold on a tricky chance.
In just his second Test, Wanindu Hasaranga displayed his talent with the bat. In a continuation from the second innings of the first Test, he batted with comfort, scoring square of the wicket with ease. He was also adept at running quick singles and was severe to full balls as well, hitting them down the ground whenever presented with an opportunity. Meanwhile, Nortje continued to be full and nicked off Dasun Shanaka. He then tested Dushmantha Chameera cutting him in half twice through booming inswingers and inducing an edge that flew past the gap between slips and gully.
While the rookies around him were making merry, the spearhead Lungi Ngidi failed to hit consistent areas. Bowling or straying down the pads, he gifted four boundaries as the eighth wicket stand swelled to 39.
The over after the drinks interval ended Hasaranga’s promising knock as Lutho Sipamla had him nicked off to de Kock. A bouncer from around the wicket earned Nortje his second five-for at the Bullring. A yorker at express pace gave him his first six-for as after opting to bat, Sri Lanka folded for 157.
The Elgar show seals the day
After Nortje and Mulder put South Africa on top, a superlative knock from Elgar sealed the day for the hosts.
He looked the most comfortable batsman on a bowler's day, building his innings on well-judged leaves, controlled pulls, playing late and with soft hands. All the ingredients needed to succeed in pace-friendly conditions.
The same was not true for Aiden Markram who pushed at an innocuous delivery with an angled bat to give an impressive Asitha Fernando his first Test wicket. Markram scored the last of his four Test tons at the same venue against Australia in March 2018 in the tainted series. He has averaged 23.66 in 12 Tests since.
The Sri Lankan bowlers, especially Asitha were more comfortable bowling to the right-handers. Keeping things tight, the pacers did not allow South Africa to score freely as Rassie van der Dussen got off the mark on the 25th delivery he faced. By the 15th over of the innings, South Africa had not scored a single run on a ball at a good length. The only break offered from the pressure built was when they could not fight their stubbornness to bowl short - the ball that the pair scored off with ease.
Till the drinks interval post Tea, South Africa scored at three runs per over – 48 runs off 16 overs - way slower than the day's rate. In the over after drinks, Elgar drove Shanaka through the offside to reach his 16th Tests fifty. But this was after Shanaka had tested him with cross seamed beauties earlier in the over.
Assisted by a carefree Elgar, set van der Dussen, loss of shine on the ball and bowlers into their second spell, the scoring rate picked up in the second half of the session. The pair added 78 runs in the last 15 overs of the day with Elgar scoring 38 in 43 balls after reaching his half-century. He did not even spare the good length balls, waiting on them to cut behind square or punch them on the offside. He attacked the spinner - Wanindu Hasaranda – right away, milking his first over for 11 runs with boundaries on both sides of the wicket.
Being only 9 runs behind after the first day, South Africa are well ahead in the Test already. Stranger things have happened in sport but, barring some divine intervention, South Africa look set for a series whitewash.