Centurion - South Africa struck an important psychological blow as they began their three-Test series against Sri Lanka in fine fashion with their innings and 81 run shellacking of the tourists in the first test at SuperSport Park in Centurion on Saturday.
Sri Lanka subsided inside three days to confirm the predictions of most experts prior to the start of the tour that the visitors would battle to cope with South African conditions where swing and seam movement rule supreme.
Sri Lanka, after being shot out for 180 in their first innings, cobbled together just 150 runs in their second dig as the Proteas’ new hero Vernon Philander ran riot to claim his maiden 10-wicket match haul in Test matches and his fourth five-wicket haul in his first three tests.
The tourist’s skipper Tillakaratne Dilshan laid the blame for his team’s defeat squarely on his batsmen.
"Our batting didn't click, that's where we lost the game," Dilshan said in the aftermath of the heavy defeat.
"As a batting group, we definitely have to take responsibility. We've been working hard in the nets, but we didn't carry that to the middle,” he added.
Of particular concern to Sri Lanka coach Geoff Marsh will be the failure of his three senior batsmen with Dilshan, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene contributing just 60 runs between them.
Sri Lanka’s attack, while disciplined for the majority of South Africa’s first innings, lacked any potency and the visitors will hope that the imminent arrival of pacemen Nuwan Kulasekera and Dhammika Prasad will boost their attacking ability.
Sri Lanka have now failed to win in 15 Tests since the retirement of off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan and, on the evidence witnessed in Centurion, it may be awhile before they end that unwanted streak.
South Africa, on the other hand, can take enormous confidence in their performance as they search for their first home series win since 2008.
Philander’s meteoric rise is perhaps the biggest plus especially as Morne Morkel is struggling with his form at the moment.
Proteas captain Graeme Smith was understandably delighted with Philander’s match haul of 10 for 102.
“It's an awesome achievement by Vernon, there was obviously still a bit of life in the pitch, but he deserved his 10-for,” Smith enthused.
“He's got a lot of motivation at the moment, he understands his skills, and he’s gained confidence from four-day domestic cricket.”
Philander has now taken 22 wickets in his three tests, the best start to Test cricket by any bowler. The previous best return after three tests was 18 wickets achieved by Sri Lanka’s is a world record. Previous best was 18 by Sri Lankan seamer Saliya Ahangama in the 1980s.
“You always hope someone's as successful when they debut as Vernon has been, but he's played cricket for long enough and been through enough ups and downs to know that it won't always be as easy. He knows there will be a few tougher times," Smith said.
Smith also reserved special praise for Mark Boucher who began the Test with a question mark about his form. The veteran keeper completed a valuable half-century in South Africa’s only innings while he nabbed six catches in Sri Lanka’s second innings.
“Mark has played enough games to know when he is not performing to a certain standard. He did some really good technical work on his batting. His technique has changed a bit since the Australian series,” said Smith.
“He worked really hard in the build-up to this test series and it was great to see it pay off in a game for him. I believe that Boucher is an important cog in our team especially going to places like England.
It was fantastic to see him come through with the bat in this test but his glovework was also outstanding,” he added.
The Proteas will now turn their attention to the second test due to start in Durban on Boxing Day and Smith said that his team would not be getting too far ahead of themselves despite their resounding win in Centurion.
“The guys showed good maturity here and the same applies for Durban. Our preparation is key...ideally we would like to replicate this performance in Durban,” he concluded.