Sri Lanka 396 and 65 for 2 (Perera 33*, Ngidi 2-28) trail South Africa 621 (du Plessis 199, Maharaj, 73, Bavuma 71) by 160 runs
Day three was the day in which South Africa claimed an iron-grip on the Test.
This was partly through Faf du Plessis‘ sparkling 199, and the big partnerships he racked up alongside the lower middle order. But also, due to the injuries to Sri Lanka’s attack, which now have decimated their main bowling resources, in addition to having depleted their batting.
With the hosts having established a 225-run first-innings lead, Sri Lanka are attempting to claw their way back, finishing 160 runs in the red, with only eight wickets in hand.
They don’t have the services of their most fluent batsman in the first innings – Dhananjaya de Silva – and if they manage to make South Africa bat again, they are also now missing three bowlers. Kasun Rajitha, it is perhaps safe to say, is out of the match. Lahiru Kumara, who aborted his 22nd over and went off the field in the morning, seemingly with a groin complaint, may not bowl again in the game either. de Silva’s offspin is also unavailable.
Although the injuries can be at least partially be attributed to Sri Lanka’s less-than-ideal lead-up to the Test series – a result of the pandemic, mainly – South Africa batted long in addition to scoring their runs quickly, and ensured the physical toll on Sri Lanka’s attack was substantial.
du Plessis began the day on 55 and worked himself gradually back into the groove, collecting singles and twos while the old ball was in operation, before climbing into a more aggressive mode against the second new ball. He also fought through a sustained bouncer-barrage from Kumara in the morning session, during which he reached his 10th century, and will feel he earned the right to face the much worse bowling that came his way in the afternoon and evening sessions.
Once he had warmed up for the day, du Plessis was severe on anything overpitched, driving confidently through the offside, though he also played the pull shot to good effect. At no stage did he back away from a challenge. When Kumara was bouncing him, he continued to play the ball, occasionally getting lucky with edges that fell into space, but largely playing controlled and productive strokes.
He got to his hundred off 151 balls, and went at almost a run-a-ball to his 150, which he reached off the 205th delivery he faced.
In the morning he had mostly been partnered by Temba Bavuma, who hit 71 and had been part of a 179-run fifth-wicket stand, that wrested decisive control of the match.
Bavuma’s dismissal though, was strange. He played at a wide-ish Dasun Shanaka ball and began walking almost as soon as the ball hit the wicketkeeper’s gloves. Replays and snicko strongly suggested he had not edged that ball.
Later, du Plessis also put on 77 with Wiaan Mulder, who made 36, and then the partnership that really winded Sri Lanka (if there was any wind to be taken following all those injuries) – a 134-run stand with Keshav Maharaj, who made his own career-best score of 73.
The afternoon session was truly calamitous for Sri Lanka, who also lost legspinner Wanindu Hasaranga for part of it, after Hasaranga dived on to the ball while attempting a boundary save, and sustained what seemed to be a minor injury to his left leg.
Through this period, captain Dimuth Karunaratne had to resort to getting seven overs out of Kusal Mendis who was a wicketkeeper in his younger years and bowls… lets call it legspin. Karunaratne also bowled 6.5 overs of trenchantly innocuous seam-up himself.
du Plessis was playing by far the most productive innings of his Test career (his previous best was 137), and was facing the kind of bowling that might have struggled to trouble a second-division club batsman hungover from the night before.
du Plessis seemed almost certain to reach a double century – the first for South Africa since 2016 – but somehow managed to blow the chance.
He moved largely unperturbed through the 190s, as Maharaj struck boundaries at the other end. And then, with one to get, he skipped down the track to Hasaranga (a ploy he hadn’t used much), and tried to launch him down the ground. He didn’t get to the pitch of the ball though. The catch went to mid-on, and du Plessis was left to trudge off the field, to a dressing room that seemed devastated on his behalf. That Sri Lanka’s players congratulated him on his way off would have seemed like mild consolation.
Sri Lanka’s two remaining frontline bowlers wrapped up the tail quickly enough – Hasaranga taking 4 for 171 and Vishwa Fernando claiming 3 for 129, but the damage had already been done.
For Sri Lanka, the day worsened, not least because there could be yet another injury (yes, you’re reading that right, another injury).
Karunaratne was bowled for six by a Lungi Ngidi ball that kept deviously low, before Kusal Mendis edged Ngidi to slip to be out for zero. Any mild comfort that Sri Lanka gained from Kusal Perera and Dinesh Chandimal batting confidently until the close was sapped when Chandimal appeared to pull up lame while completing a single off the last ball of the day.
Will he be able to bat on Tuesday? Who knows. The way this is going, someone is also going to bust a hamstring by sitting down too fast on the team bus in the morning.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo’s Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf