It's a rare day when South Africa win in Sri Lanka

South Africa's Andile Phehlukwayo drops a catch hit by Sri Lanka's Kusal Perera (not pictured) during the first ODI match in Dambulla on Sunday July 29 2018.
South Africa's Andile Phehlukwayo drops a catch hit by Sri Lanka's Kusal Perera (not pictured) during the first ODI match in Dambulla on Sunday July 29 2018.
Image: REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

South Africa managed to do something in Dambulla on Sunday that escaped them in the first three weeks of their series in Sri Lanka: win.

After playing poor cricket throughout two Tests‚ and losing both comfortably‚ Faf du Plessis’ team got it together well enough in the first one-day international to earn the honours by five wickets with 19 overs to spare.

But best South Africans don’t breathe that sigh of relief just yet — there are four more ODIs to come‚ the next at the same venue on Wednesday.

Besides‚ while the victory was comprehensive it was not wholly convincing.

South Africa’s ideas seemed to evaporate in the stiff wind that blew all day after sniping bowling on a responsive pitch by Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi — and JP Duminy’s whiplash pick-up-and-throw to hit the only stump he could see to run out Upul Tharanga — reduced the Lankans to 36/5 inside nine overs.

Besides taking wickets in their 11 overs together with the new ball‚ only once did Rabada or Ngidi concede more than nine runs in any of those overs.

Then came Wiaan Mulder and Andile Phehlukwayo‚ who went for 16 and 12 in their first overs. The six they bowled together yielded 66.

Enter Tabraiz Shamsi and Duminy to slow the flow of runs to 37 in their eight overs in tandem‚ along the way breaking the partnership of the Pereras — Kusal and Thisara — at 92.

Left-arm wrist spinner Shamsi kept going and ended the innings at 193 midway through the 35th over when he had Lahiru Kumara easily stumped.

Shamsi and Rabada were full value for their four wickets each and Ngidi’s economy rate of 3.62 told of more quality bowling.

But it was puzzling to see bowlers of the calibre of Mulder and Phehlukwayo fail to come to terms with conditions that shouldn’t have been that foreign to them.

Battingwise‚ too‚ there were questions.

Sri Lanka had been dismissed early enough for six overs to be bowled in South Africa’s reply before lunch — and in that time they lost Hashim Amla and Aiden Markram‚ both to clumsy batsmanship and both to Akila Dananjaya‚ the impish right-arm finger and wrist spinner.

Amla went back when he should have been forward and was bowled. Markram didn’t pick the googly and was trapped plumb in front.

To watch a great like Amla struggle with the core concepts of batting like he has done for much of the past year sends a pang of anxiety through many South African hearts.

He has not scored a century in his last 27 Test or one-day innings and has been dismissed in the single figures nine times.

Markram is nothing less than the future of South Africa’s top order‚ a player of Amla’s stature in the making.

But his duck on Sunday was his third in seven innings on this tour. Only twice in those trips to the crease has he made it to double figures.

Happily‚ for South Africa‚ there was better news to report from other corners of the order.

Quinton de Kock took his centuryless streak in Tests and ODIs to 23 innings. But the 47 he scored on Sunday was a welcome reminder of the player he is.

De Kock and Du Plessis shared 86 off 96 balls in South Africa’s major partnership‚ a settling intervention after the early loss of Amla and Markram.

It is no small thing that despite the burden the troubles of the Test series would have put on the captain‚ Du Plessis seems to have emerged with his own game intact.

And then came Duminy. His fearless‚ forthright play was defiance on legs from a player who last held a bat for South Africa in the Lord’s Test a year ago and who has become an afterthought in discussions about the World Cup.

Duminy edged the third ball he faced‚ from Dananjaya‚ short of slip. He swept the next delivery from outside his off-stump metres over the midwicket fence for six.

He explained that approach in a television interview as “knowing your gameplan and sticking to it no matter what happens”.

Duminy also hammered a six over long-on‚ swept two fours and lashed four more boundaries through the covers and backward point.

An unbeaten 53 off 32 are the minor details of his effort.

What it really means is this: JP Duminy is not done.

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