Faf du Plessis had strode to the highest Test score of his career and the Proteas’ lead had grown to 169 as South Africa reached tea on the third day of the first Test against Sri Lanka on 565 for six at SuperSport Park in Centurion on Monday.
Du Plessis was on 177 not out, his first century since the 103 he made against Pakistan at Newlands in January 2019. The 10th century of his Test career, it surpassed the 137 he made against New Zealand in Port Elizabeth in 2013, and it is also the highest score of his entire first-class career.
The former captain has now been at the crease for 238 balls, hitting 23 fours with some great strokeplay as he ensured the Proteas capitalised to the fullest extent on the injury crisis sweeping through the Sri Lankan team.
Fast bowler Lahiru Kumara bowled just one delivery after lunch before limping off the field, while leg-spinner Wanindu Hasaranga injured his knee in a fielding mishap on the boundary and was stretchered away before returning to bowl towards the end of the second session.
Off-spinner Dhananjaya de Silva and opening bowler Kasun Rajitha had already been ruled out of any further part in the match. Sri Lanka had another scare when wicketkeeper Niroshan Dickwella had to receive treatment for a bee sting on his neck, but fortunately he was able to continue behind the stumps.
Debutant Hasaranga has been the busiest of the toiling Sri Lankan attack, bowling 37 overs and taking two for 143. He claimed the only wicket to fall after lunch, having Wiaan Mulder caught behind for a useful 36, having dropped a sharp chance off his own bowling from the all-rounder the ball before.
Du Plessis and Mulder added 77 for the sixth wicket and then the veteran batsman and Keshav Maharaj were busy rubbing salt in Sri Lanka’s wounds with an unbeaten 89-run stand for the seventh wicket.
Maharaj had batted impressively with a fluent 43 not out.
Du Plessis’ top-class century had led South Africa to a narrow lead by lunch, with the Proteas on 435 for six, a lead of 39. On a pitch where the bounce is already inconsistent and likely to get worse, it was absolutely crucial that the Proteas, who will have to bat last, enjoyed a sizeable first-innings advantage.
They began the third day on 317 for four and lost just a single wicket in the morning session, that of Temba Bavuma for a typically skilful and determined 71. He and Du Plessis added a vital 179 for the fifth wicket, a record for South Africa against Sri Lanka, eclipsing the 161 Ashwell Prince and AB de Villiers put on in Colombo in 2006.
Bavuma fell in interesting circumstances, aiming a flashing back-foot drive at Dasun Shanaka and not waiting for a decision from the umpire as the tourists appealed for a catch behind the wicket. While Snicko suggested there was not a deflection off the bat, the batsman clearly felt he had edged the ball and left the crease without a moment’s hesitation.
Sri Lanka took the second new ball as soon as it became available in the ninth over of the day as they sought the breakthrough, but the positive Du Plessis continued to defy them. His experienced presence in the middle-order has proved vital as South Africa recovered from losing three wickets for 20 runs on the second afternoon.