Sri Lanka’s decision to field first was predicated on two reasons: not to give a fresh pitch to the formidable South African pacers and to play to their own strength of batting deep and chasing targets.
However, the decision backfired because the South African bowling backed by skipper AB de Villiers’ outstanding fielding proved adept at defending a reasonable total.
Nevertheless, South Africa’s inability to emphatically turn the screws on the limited Sri Lankan team would have been worrying for its supporters. Tougher sides would simply chew them up if they got scent of fragilities.
Instead, rivals Sri Lanka faltered and allowed the South Africans to get out of jail.
The opening bowlers Kagiso Rabada and Wayne Parnell struggled to keep Lankan opener Niroshan Dickwella in check. But the other pacers, the tall duo, Morne Morkel and Chris Morris, bowled remarkably well.
The Lankans, tied down by these two pacers, who were getting decent bounce from a length, tried to pinch runs off leg spinner Imran Tahir and perished to his consistency and wile. His haul of four for 27 and a direct-hit run out of Suranga Lakmal fetched him the man of the match award.
But South Africa, impressive though they were in the win, would hardly be happy with the manner in which they batted. The openers Hashim Amla and Quiton de Kock looked so tense at the start that they struggled to work the ball off the square.
In fact, there has always been a question mark on South African cricketers’ temperament. They have tripped up in many international multi-nation games. Thus when their openers struggled today, it hardly inspired confidence.
Quinton de Kock’s footwork was sluggish while his bat speed and flow were literally non-existent. His dismissal in the 13th over actually freed the Proteas. His replacement Faf du Plessis looked far more busy while Amla slowly came back into his own.
Still, the two batsmen did not bat as aggressively as they ought to have. The important thing, though, was that they kept the team score going with their painful 145-run stand.
An anxious skipper AB de Villiers and David Miller, the two hard hitters in the Proteas camp, fell in an attempt to take the fight to the opponents. But Amla, JP Duminy and Morris kept the innings going.
Amla showed he would be the South African batting star to watch out for. He not only kept his end going but also scored at a reasonable rate after the initial hiccups. His hunger for runs was evident on Saturday too and the century he made (103 in 115 balls, 2x6, 5x4) was the cornerstone of the win.
It helped put sufficient runs on the board and the 300-run target was good enough for the bowlers to express themselves.
South Africa would however be vexed at the way Rabada, their pace ace, fell apart when Dickwella hustled him. The latter, a busy left-hand batsman, was never stationary at the crease. He often backed away or moved across or even stepped out to constantly throw the bowlers off rhythm. Rabada handled these tactics pretty badly. He tried to second-guess the batsman’s movement and ended up being wayward. He sent down three wides, two down the leg side and one particular short-pitched delivery which flew way above the batsman’s head.
The other new ball bowler, left-handed Parnell, hardly got the ball to swing or swerve. At his pace and without the comfort of seam and swing bowling to fall back upon, his bowling was not the force it was in the third and final One Day International against England the other day.
But Morkel showed his value in the team with an excellent burst of fast bowling. He got good bounce off a length and cramped up the batsmen. The other tall paceman Morris too was effective with a similar plan. Suddenly, the runs not only dried up but fetched the wickets of Dickwella and Mendis.
The other impressive aspect of South Africa’s win was the brilliant fielding of de Villiers. He took a very good catch to dismiss Mendis and later came up with a sensational run out to account for Dinesh Chandimal.
The win would have given South Africa plenty to cheer. They might have had their apprehensions at the start of the match. However, by the end they not only looked reassured but simply overwhelmed the opposition. Certainly a side to watch out for!