Johannesburg - If the 3-0 whitewash over Sri Lanka was ever in doubt, the question about whether the Proteas will ever play the full five days under Faf du Plessis’ stewardship remained on Saturday - as the pitiful visitors were vanquished inside three days.
For the eighth time since Du Plessis took over from AB de Villiers, the Proteas finished a Test well inside the distance, this time beating a Sri Lankan team which came, saw and were conquered by an innings and 118 runs.
The light work made of a young Sri Lankan side actually on the up, was thanks to a combination of unfamiliar and therefore hostile conditions and a ruthlessness shown by the Proteas of late, especially with the ball.
Having successfully negotiated a tricky first morning, and having gone on to be dismissed for 426 on day two (155 of those going to JP Duminy and 134 to Test centurion Hashim Amla), the much-vaunted pace quartet fair blew the visitors away.
The win was built on Du Plessis’ much-debated decision to bat first in the match on a grassy wicket under cloud cover after winning the toss on Thursday.
His rationale at the time was that if the conditions meant the impressive Sri Lankan spearhead Suranga Lakmal would be in business, said business would be positively booming for his attack on days two and three, as he expected the wicket to quicken up significantly.
Having the visitors at 80/4 when play began on Saturday morning meant Du Plessis had been vindicated. And by the time they were dismissed for a pitiful 131, after just 45.4 overs, the Sri Lankans had made Du Plessis look prophetic.
Du Plessis’ chief enforcers were Vernon Philander and Kagiso Rabada, who went about their business in very different ways but both got three-wicket hauls, the former returning figures of 3/28 and the latter conceding 44 runs in the process.
Aggressive on debut
Locked in a battle to be the leading wicket taker in the series, the two were driving the Sri Lankan batsmen to distraction in two ways: Philander (17 wickets in the series) with his Chinese water-torture accuracy and movement off the seam, and Rabada (19) with the kind of pace and disconcerting lift known to make grown men pee themselves in apprehension.
Both were ably supported by Wayne Parnell and Duanne Olivier, two men engaged in their own audition to replace Kyle Abbott as the third seamer in the team.
Having started a little tentatively – no doubt agonising about his consistency, pace, the position of his arm at the point of release and whatnot – Parnell got back to something approaching the instinctive X-factor player he was picked for being and was rewarded with six wickets in the match (an innings best of four in the second innings).
Olivier was more grooved and aggressive on debut, bowling in the mid-130s to early 140s for five wickets in the match. Then came the debate on the f-word, the follow-on, for Du Plessis.
With a 295-run lead, and bowlers who hadn’t bowled for most of the third session on Friday, he had no choice but to enforce it, unlike in Cape Town.
As a nod to the visitors locating their spine, opener Dimuth Karunaratne struck a defiant 50 off 78 balls before another rip-snorter by Rabada castled him through the gate. There were entertaining cameos by Upul Tharanga and Lakmal, but the Sri Lankans were bowled out for 177.
But as helpful as the conditions were and as exploited as these were by the hosts, some of the catching by the Proteas was from another level.
A full-stretch diving effort by Quinton de Kock behind the stumps, a leap of faith by Du Plessis at second slip and a 40m run and take by JP Duminy, were the highlights of an otherworldly catching day for the Proteas.
And perhaps fittingly for a series dominated by the bowlers, Proteas opener Dean Elgar was voted man of the series, his watchful approach to making runs gathering him 308 runs at an average of 61.60 with a top score of 129.