South Africa’s new Test captain, Hashim Amla has got the most important thing right on the first day of the first Test at the Galle International Stadium; he won the toss and, of course, he elected to bat. And when his batsmen went into lunch with the score 111 for one after 29 overs, a platform seemed to have been established for a formidable first innings total. To be fair, that may still transpire, but to end the first day not only with 300 still a relatively distant prospect but also having lost five of the top six represents a distinctly under par achievement.
That events developed in this way was in part the fault of the South Africans themselves. It may seem churlish to criticise Dean Elgar and Faf du Plessis, who made 103 and 80 respectively. But there were times when their approach suggested that five days were not quite enough and that a timeless Test was more to their liking. But equally significant was the attitude of the Sri Lankan attack. They were handicapped by an injury to Shaminda Eranga in mid afternoon, splitting the webbing between two fingers of his bowling hand, and captain Angelo Mathews opted to bowl only two overs all day. This meant that almost all the work was done by Suranga Lakmal, Rangana Herath and off-spinner Dilruwan Perera, who was preferred to Ajantha Mendis as the second spinner. All had their moments and they stuck to their task with commendable perseverance.
The prospects for the day seemed decidedly different after an hour or so of play. South Africa’s new opening pair of Elgar and Alviro Petersen set off at, if not a gallop then at least an extremely comfortable canter.
Herath was on by the sixth over and Mathews made his cameo appearance as a bowler shortly thereafter. After ten overs, South Africa were 43 for no wicket and Herath who likes to think of Galle as “his” turf was going for five an over. It was Petersen who made the early running. Taking two fours in an over from Eranga including what was in effect a sumptuous push through mid on. But Elgar was soon matching him and they were on level pegging when Petersen was quite surprisingly out, missing a straight one from Perera and being adjudged leg before. Naturally he reviewed the decision but to no avail.
This brought in du Plessis in preference to the captain, who has been one of the outstanding number threes of modern times. Du Plessis brought perhaps an excessive degree of sobriety to the proceedings, like having a maiden aunt to stay after the house has been occupied by teenagers. But this did not matter initially because Elgar was now getting into his stride, reaching his fifty with an on driven six and a pulled four off Perera shortly before lunch.
In the heat and humidity of the early afternoon something approaching complete torpor descended upon proceedings as Elgar and du Plessis consolidated. After 42 overs the score was 138 for one and the innings seemed in danger of being becalmed but the reintroduction of Perera seemed to galvanize the batsmen, particularly du Plessis, who struck him for two fours in an over and then went after Herath too, hitting him for a magnificent six over long on. It was easy to see what a class act du Plessis is in this passage of play, his footwork to the spinners being particularly quick and decisive.
Things quiet ended down again after this burst of activity and Sri Lanka managed to bowl three successive maidens in mid-afternoon. The left-handed Elgar though was quietly accumulating and in the 57th over he reached his second Test century, dancing down the wicket to Perera and launching the ball over long off. It was his third six and there were eleven fours, with shots all around the wicket including a delicious late cut off Herath. It was, somewhat improbably, the first hundred by a South African opener in Sri Lanka.
At tea the score was 194 for one and clearly the time had come to build on this formidable platform, but that is not how it worked out at all. For this much of the credit must go to Lakmal who bowled a tight and incisive spell of reverse swing straight after tea and removed Edgar for 103 inducing him to edge a ball he might well have left alone and edge it to Chandimal behind the stumps. Amla, for whom this whole day must have been a hugely emotional experience, never looked entirely comfortable apart from one typically silky glide through mid wicket. In the same Herath over he departed in bizarre fashion, essaying something extravagant over cover, being deceived by the pace and ending up giving catching practice to Perera at mid off: 220 for 3.
Du Plessis was next to go on 246 for three, caught at short leg off bad and pad from the bowling of Perera who was getting the odd one to turn, A B de Villiers was already beginning to look seriously good by this time unveiling some lovely shots as the evening drew in. But as Ian Bell among others will tell you, looking good isn’t everything. De Villiers led a charmed life. He was almost run out by Perera and he was given out caught in almost identical circumstances to du Plessis but the decision was reversed. But de Villiers’ luck ran out in the end, actually luck had nothing to do with it: he was undone by a superb delivery with a new ball – initially entrusted to the spinners com Lakmal which nipped in off the seam and clattered into the stumps.
As night, watchman Dale Steyn joined new wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock, South Africa must have been ruling the opportunities squandered on this first day.
Bill Ricquier, 16/07/2014
This article was published in the Island: http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=106878
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