Sri Lanka in SA

Proteas show finest qualities

2012-01-05 22:11
Vernon Philander (Gallo Images)
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town - When South Africa play as well as they did on day three of the final Test against Sri Lanka at Newlands here on Thursday, they look at least as good as any other team on the planet.

Full scorecard after Day 3

Video highlights: Day 3

Gallery: Fans enjoy Proteas v SL

That is why it has been so frustrating for all of us witnessing their turbulent, unpredictable ride in this format over the past three years or so, which has prevented them from advancing to the very top of the ICC rankings pile.

One good game, one bad, one good, one bad ... the cynics among us may well expect things to go pear-shaped once more when they open the next series, in New Zealand, at Dunedin’s University Oval on March 7.

That is assuming they land a firm killer blow at Newlands first, of course.

But there is every reason to suspect, after a ceaselessly purposeful and productive day’s play in the field, that the Proteas are finally on the brink of achieving that elusive headline home series win - something they have failed to do in two attempts against Australia, and one each against India and England.

Sri Lanka require a quite freakish fight-back if they are to save the Test, considering that they are four wickets down in their follow-on innings, still trailing by a gaping margin of 203 runs and with all of their most pedigreed batsmen already back in the hut a second time.

Two days remain for Graeme Smith’s hearteningly fired-up troops to complete the task, but expect well less than one to be required to clinch a 2-1 outcome.

When they started out on Thursday, the Proteas probably secretly anticipated bowling out the Lankans for something in the region of 330 or 350 in their first knock, considering that they had overnighted on a healthy enough 149 for two.

The plan then might well have been not to enforce the follow-on, have a bright old second innings bash themselves, and then set Tillakaratne Dilshan and company a near-impossible target on a particularly wearing track on days four and five.

Instead the bowlers had more ambitious ideas: Dale Steyn set the tone just two minutes into play by inducing a loose stroke from dangerman Kumar Sangakkara, and that setback seemed to pretty much knock the stuffing from the visitors.

The remainder of the innings became a wretched affair for Sri Lanka, as they could only add a paltry 90 runs to their promising day two effort for the loss of eight wickets - and this on a track that was not yet showing especially major signs of decay.

So Smith was able to resort to what I suspect may have been subconsciously his Plan B: enforce the follow-on because his admirable attack - backed up by a sharpness in the field best demonstrated by the unfailing hands of a certain JH Kallis - had done half their match job without surrendering too much stamina.

There was to be no major let-up in intensity as the Lankans took guard again, and it says everything about South Africa’s urgency and enduring skill levels that their opponents were curtailed to an overall day-three tally of 228 runs for the loss of 12 wickets on the supposed back-breaker.

Perhaps the only disappointment for healthily Test-hungry Capetonians at the ground - there was another strong attendance figure - is that the unexpectedly swift advance of play on Thursday means that a “don’t book for Saturday” policy seems very firmly steeped in wisdom.

It was inspiring to see how the Proteas bowlers operated as a genuine collective, with nobody hugely standing out in the wickets column and an equitable share of the booty taking place.

Nevertheless, the pick was probably once again Vernon Philander - still playing only his fourth Test match, let’s not forget.

Just back from an injury that laid him low in the Kingsmead fiasco (yes, that other SA characteristic) the Cape Cobras seamer nibbled and probed in wonderful business areas, combining penetration with an ability to choke the flow of runs even if his partner at the other end would occasionally “leak” a little more than is ideal.

Morne Morkel was expensive in that regard for what was left of the Lankan first innings, but he both started and finished the wicket-taking job, all the same, and had bursts of real hostility and pace.

Imran Tahir? At last we could witness the leg-spinner operating with the protection of a massive total behind him, and on a pitch more suited to his trade than the spicy early-season ones witnessed in prior weeks.

He came through with close to flying colours - bar the occasional long-hop, which all leggies are prone to - as he fizzed a few balls wickedly out of the rough to the Lankan left-handers and also showed that he can, indeed, greatly turn his stock delivery at times.

As for those animated wicket celebrations ... some charge that they are a bit over the top and unsightly in the game’s most traditional arena.

I prefer to view them at this stage as spontaneous displays of unbridled joy and, unless I am mistaken, the crowd seems mostly to love them.

Doesn’t that count for something?

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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