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Elgar’s ton anchors South Africa’s recovery

The serious demeanour of Dean Elgar, a batsman not given to fripperies, dominated the opening day of the second Test at Newlands as Sri Lanka failed to gain lasting 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, who guided South Africa forward as he progressed conscientiously to a sixth Test century.

At 169 for 5, with 30 overs remaining and Temba Bavuma just dismissed on the pull by Sri Lanka’s highly-promising fast bowler Lahiru Kumara, the day was still in the balance, but South Africa snatched it with a sixth-wicket stand 103 in 24 overs between Elgar and Quinton de Kock, who gambolled around without a care on land that Elgar had tilled, and watered from the sweat of his brow, for hours.

Elgar’s end came against the second new ball – 129 from 230 deliveries – when he pushed at a wideish delivery from Suranga Lakmal and was defeated by a little seam movement, leaving Kusal Mendis to pouch the catch. De Kock, his antithesis, survived a few escapades with failed ramp shots and top-edged pulls to reach a happy-go-lucky 68 not out by the close.

Faf du Plessis, South Africa’s captain, would be well satisfied. He had happily volunteered that a fresh and grassy Newlands surface was intended to favour his strong pace attack. Even Table Mountain, adorned by cloud throughout the first session, came out in support. “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.”

Sri Lanka had first use of it, but were unable to bury their reputation. Two wickets late in the morning session for Kumara ensured they achieved what was surely a minimum objective of three wickets 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.

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 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 first new ball, clearly roused by the sight of lavish movement, never short of a tongue-out grin when the ball behaved in a manner that is a special delight for bowlers condemned to playing out much of their career in Sri Lanka’s draining conditions.

Nuwan Pradeep, although combative enough, lacked the technical skill to make the most of the conditions and limped off midway through an over during the final session. His only impact was 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.

Angelo Mathews, who initially bowled himself ahead of Kumara, settled for containment with a line well outside off stump which South Africa’s batsmen ignored at their leisure which later made it hard to ascertain why Mathews took the second new ball while Kumara, already strong and stocky at 19, and capable of speeds well beyond 140kph, had to make do with the old.

Kumara accounted for both Amla and JP Duminy in the same over. Amla was unhinged by an excellent delivery which came back sharply off the seam between bat and pad, leaving him without a Test half-century in his last nine innings, a strikingly lean run for a batsman blessed with such natural gifts. Five balls later, Duminy became a second duck in the top four when he fended a back-of-a-length delivery from Kumara off his hip for 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’s hundred was his sixth in 31 Tests, his average still a touch below 40, but he has blunted many attacks in that time. He approached his innings methodically, 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. The shot that brought up his hundred, down the ground of Pradeep, could hardly have been more satisfying: halfway through his next over, Pradeep trudged off to the dressing room

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 R Ashwin in terms of victims, all of them killed with kindness. 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 Plessis.

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 wildly at a wide one.

South Africa’s captain had favoured a seamers’ track and, although in his case it was the portly figure of Herath who had prospered, he would be tossing a new ball to his pace attack sometime on the morrow with a belief that this Cape Town pitch would maintain its life for a while yet. (Courtesy ESPN Cricinfo)

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