Relentless South Africa close in on series win
The Report by Nitin Sundar
January 5, 2012
138 for 4 (Mathews 28*, Samaraweera 19*) and 239 (Dilshan 78, Steyn 3-56, Philander 3-46) trail South Africa 580 for 4 dec by 203 runs
South Africa produced an exhibition of blistering seam and swing in the first innings, followed by nagging persistence in the second, to nip out 12 of the 18 wickets they needed for victory at the start of the third day. Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander delivered spells of unmitigated menace to demolish Sri Lanka`s last eight first-innings wickets for 90 runs, allowing South Africa to enforce the follow-on around 30 minutes after lunch.
The pair`s combined first-innings effort on the third morning yielded 6 for 28 in 17 overs, and provided a cruel twist to Sri Lanka`s plans of batting through the day. Wickets weren`t that easy to come by in the second innings, following Tillakaratne Dilshan`s customary brainfade, but South Africa chipped away to skim the top order by stumps.
The wicket-fest left Sri Lanka staring at defeat with two days of good weather expected in Cape Town. Their euphoria after winning the Boxing Day Test has steadily dissipated since the toss at Newlands, and the tone for another day of disappointment was set early in the piece.
Kumar Sangakkara leaned out to the third ball of the morning to square-drive Steyn uppishly to point, where Hashim Amla gleefully pouched the chance. Sangakkara`s exit meant Thilan Samaraweera was in the middle much earlier than he`d have bargained for. Philander proceeded to systematically work him over with an exhibition of high quality seam bowling, easily the highlight of the day`s action.
Philander hit his default lengths in his very first over, and got a couple to curl away devilishly as Samaraweera groped inside the line. In his next over, he repeated the dose to Mahela Jayawardene, befuddling him with another one that leapt away. Samaraweera nearly covered the line the next time, nudging it off the outer half of the blade towards gully.
Philander gradually moved the lure closer to off stump. Samaraweera spotted another one that straightened and let it whistle by, uneasily close to off stump. As if to get Samaraweera thinking, Philander nipped the final ball of that over - the last before drinks - back in, to produce an inside edge. The variation may have been on Samawaraweera`s mind as he sipped on his drinks, and the uncertainty could have only increased when Philander`s first ball after the break also jagged in. Samaraweera was gone next ball, clearly unsure which way the ball was going, and offering a limp bat in response. The ball snapped away to take the outside edge and land in the slips, putting a smile in Philander`s face. Not once did he touch 140 kph in that spell. He didn`t have to.
Steyn then took over, getting fast outswingers to buzz away in his second spell. His full length first drew Jayawardene into a fatal poke, and in his next over, Angelo Mathews feathered one that kept swerving from the time it left Steyn`s hand. Imran Tahir ended the first session with a ball that confirmed there would be no respite against spin. It landed a couple of feet outside Thisara Perera`s off stump, on the bowlers` foot marks, and spun back in viciously to have him bowled. Within the space of a session, Sri Lanka`s outlook had turned just as drastically. Dinesh Chandimal kept fighting, but the tail had no chance against Philander after the break.
There might be a defence for Dilshan`s strange decision at the toss, but there can be none for the shot he played in the second innings. He seemed to be walking to the dressing room even as he wafted loosely and edged Philander, who was snaking the shiny new ball even more viciously than in the morning. Sangakkara and Lahiru Thirimanne stonewalled for 26.1 overs to produce Sri Lanka`s longest partnership of the match thus far, but it was only a matter of time before South Africa made further incisions.
Thirimanne feathered Jacques Kallis onto his pad en route to short leg, to bring Sangakkara and Jayawardene together for the second time in the day. Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, their two best batsmen were about to fail them again. By now, Tahir was getting the ball to do magic out of the rough, and Sangakkara inevitably nudged one to Kallis at slip. A little later, Kallis bent low and plucked Jayawardene`s second outside edge of the day, this time against Morne Morkel. Samaraweera survived to stumps along with Mathews, but even a machine-gun celebration from him tomorrow might not suffice to rescue Sri Lanka.
South Africa walked back smiling and chirpy, but one man in the home team must be apprehensive. Mark Boucher clanged two regulation chances, that are not expected to affect the course of the game, unlike his drop of Sangakkara in Durban. Still, the South African selectors will be tempted to look at a young replacement sooner than later.
Nitin Sundar is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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