Brilliant Maharaj keeps Proteas in the game

Sri Lanka are 277 for 9 at stumps on day one of the second and final Test, at the Sinhalese Sports Club in Colombo. 

Keshav Maharaj’s career-best effort of 8 for 116 was a beautiful thing to watch but Sri Lanka’s 277 runs on the board probably represent an above-average tally where a finger spinner was able to take so many wickets on the first day.

South Africa went into this Test match “dormie 1”, meaning that  the best series result for the visitors would be a 1-1 draw. It thus was to the great advantage of the home side that captain Suranga Lakmal won another good toss and again elected to make first use of a surface that will deteriorate over the coming days.

South Africa made two changes for the match as they dropped bowling all-rounder Vernon Philander for batsman Theunis de Bruyn, while paceman Lungi Ngidi got the nod ahead of second-spinner Tabraiz Shamsi, whose father passed away last week. Shamsi went home to attend the funeral but was back on Wednesday and was available for selection. The Proteas today wore armbands as a sign of condolence for their teammate.

For Sri Lanka, Akila Dananjaya got a run ahead of fellow spinner Lakshan Sandakan.

Sri Lanka’s openers did not dilly daddle with making first use of the deck at they put on the team’s first Test century opening stand for close on two years. South Africa’s pacers appeared benign at best and the hero from Galle, Dimuth Kunaratne (53), did a sterling job upfront with Danushka Gunathilaka (57). Both would fall soon after lunch to the guile of Keshav Maharaj, whose performance on this wicket suggested that the South African batsmen might be in trouble later on this contest.

Dhananjaya de Silva (60) took over the baton and batted like a true number three as he guided the team’s first innings through phases where the wicket began to do a little more than most SCC surfaces. Kusal Mendis (21) and Angelo Mathews (10) failed to get going and also succumbed to Maharaj, in the afternoon session.

That Maharaj bowled 25 overs on the trot through the middle of the first day showed the extent to which South Africa dropped a catch by not playing a second spinner. The logic may have been that Ngidi deserved a run but many will say that Philander, who batted well at Galle, might have deserved to keep his place in the side. Dale Steyn, whose efforts were again fruitless today, needs one wicket to surpass Shaun Pollock as the SA bowler with the most ever wickets and that might be some of the reason that the selectors had him in the starting XI again for the second Test.

After Tea, Kagisa Rabada (1-37), found the timber of Roshen Silva’s (22) stumps and then Maharaj completed his first day five-fer when Niroshan Dickwella (5) played an aggressive slog sweep and edged to slip. Maharaj then claimed his sixth as he got the big fish of de Silva, LBW after a a review. 247 for 7 and South Africa’s mind would have been somewhere in between hopeful that they were still in the game and that Sri Lanka already had anough.

Maharaj however was not yet finished. He claimed a seventh wicket when Dilruwan Perera (17) fell to yet another great catch, this time by Lungi Ngidi.

Only 86 overs were bowled during a day that did not have any weather delays, so four overs were lost to the match. South Africa’s unsurprisingly slow over rate probably wasn’t slow enough to land captain Faf du Plessis any form of suspension but as the captain seems to be in perpetual hot water for this and other disciplinary offences, he will be very conscious of the fact that he is skating on thin ice with the ICC law enforcers.

Some rain is forecast for the second day but a draw, however unlikely on this turning deck, would not prevent South Africa from losing this series. Stay tuned to the action.

By Nicholas Sadleir