The serious demeanour of Dean Elgar, a batsman not given to fripperies, stabilised South Africa on the opening day of the second Test at Newlands as Sri Lanka sought benefit from a good bowling day. A new year had dawned, but it was very much the old Elgar, recognisably sure of stroke and restricted in ambition, as he produced a conscientious unbeaten half-century.
Elgar was 76 not out at tea on a surface that Faf du Plessis, South Africa’s captain, had happily volunteered was intended to favour his strong pace attack. Even Table Mountain, adorned by cloud throughout the first session, came out in support.
But it was Sri Lanka who won first use of a firm, grassy surface. Two wickets late in the morning session – making three in all – for Lahiru Kumara ensured they achieved what was surely a minimum objective when the odds were most in their favour, and the addition of du Plessis shortly before tea brought them further reward on an otherwise trying afternoon.
Du Plessis had been unabashed about the fact that the Newlands pitch looked fresher than the one that met England at Newlands a year ago. “Against England last year it was a road,” he said. “It was different for that bowling attack. You have to prepare for the team you are playing against.”
Stephen Cook was the Man of the Match in Port Elizabeth, striking a century and half-century in South Africa’s emphatic 206-run win, but he made a four-ball duck on this occasion: two outswingers and an inswinger from Suranga Lakmal before another outswinger, slightly fuller, forced Cook into a statuesque nibble and a faint edge to the wicketkeeper.
Lakmal carried the most threat for Sri Lanka with the new ball, clearly roused by the sight of lavish movement, and responding with a tongue-out grin and a little strut when he drew Amla into a play-and-miss. But Nuwan Pradeep, although combative enough, lacked the technical skill to make the most of the conditions and Angelo Mathews settled for containment with a line well outside off stump which South Africa’s batsmen ignored at their leisure.
Pradeep did make an impact on the umpire Aleem Dar, catching him on the elbow as he approached the crease and bringing some pained arm extensions from the man who had just passed Rudi Koertzen as the most capped umpire in all formats. An umpire incapable of raising his finger was not about to help Sri Lanka’s cause.
When Amla unveiled a consummate cover drive against Lakmal and Elgar pushed the same bowler down the ground for a boundary in more understated fashion, drinks came at 42 for 1 and South Africa had cause for satisfaction.
Elgar was already bedding in for a long stay when Kumara, a stocky 19-year-old quick of considerable promise, accounted for both Amla and JP Duminy.
Kumara, maintaining speeds well in excess of 140kph, unhinged Amla with an excellent delivery which came back sharply off the seam between bat and pad, leaving Amla without a Test half-century in his last nine innings, a strikingly lean run for a batsman with such natural gifts. Five balls later, Duminy fended a back-of-a-length delivery from Kumara off his hip for the wicketkeeper, Kusal Mendis, to spring down the leg side for a fabulous catch.
Mendis’ presence behind the stumps had been the outcome of much Sri Lankan agonising before start of play. News gradually filtered through that Dinesh Chandimal was feeling ill, not enough to rule him out of the match, but persuading Sri Lanka that he should concede the gloves to reduce his workload. Sri Lanka also made two changes from the first Test, omitting Kusul Perera and Dushmantha Chameera in favour of Kumara and the seasoned Upul Tharanga.
Elgar fashioned the afternoon in his own spirit, working the ball off his hips and drawn occasionally into a restrained straight drive. His highlights reel included, oddly enough, a one-handed cover drive, a shot one imagines that he would prefer to be expunged from the records.
Du Plessis, a South African captain of some gravitas, played in similar vein. As the assistance for the seamers lessened, Mathews turned to his left-arm spinner, Rangana Herath, for the first time in the 42nd over.
Herath took 57 wickets at 18.93 in 2016, second only to Ravi Ashwin in terms of victims. He is at the age when the passing of the years invite questions as to how long he can continue in such form, but he soon dispensed with Du Pleassis.
In his fourth over, he wandered up with his usual economy to draw du Plessis into an uppish drive only for Tharanga to miss an inviting chance at deepish mid-off. No matter. In his penultimate over before tea, he strolled up again to have du Plessis caught at slip, driving at a wide one. South Africa’s captain had favoured a seamers’ track, but in his case it was the portly figure of Herath who had prospered.