The defiance of the Sri Lankan batsmen and the occasional sloppiness of the South African fielding meant the first Test in Port Elizabeth will go into the fifth and final day as the tourists reached the close on Thursday on 240 for five.
Set what would be a world record target of 488, but more realistically having 173 overs to survive in order to salvage a draw, Sri Lanka put up an admirable fight and the hopes of the island nation will be on the proven qualities of their captain, Angelo Mathews, who is 58 not out.
Dhananjaya de Silva, the last of the recognised batsmen, is there on nine not out and the morning session of the fifth day will obviously be crucial to the outcome as South Africa will be operating with a new ball that is just three overs old.
Kyle Abbott, reliable umpire Bruce Oxenford and just about every onlooker was certain the bowler had claimed the wicket of De Silva lbw with his first delivery with the second new ball, only for HawkEye to surprise everyone by saying the trajectory of the ball would have missed the stumps.
It was that sort of day for the Proteas, who could be forgiven for thinking Lady Luck had turned her back on them.
There were several half-chances that failed to go to hand and Stephen Cook even dropped a sitter at mid-off to reprieve Dinesh Chandimal on three off left-arm spinner Keshav Maharaj.
Chandimal, however, is certainly not Sri Lanka coach Graham Ford’s favourite senior player right now as, having added just five runs to his score, he holed out at mid-on to the same bowler, playing the identical horrendous stroke.
He not only got out 25 minutes before the close of play but also exposed a new batsman – the last recognised one – to the second new ball just two-and-a-half overs away.
Chandimal came to the wicket after a similarly awful stroke by Kusal Mendis had seen him caught behind off Kagiso Rabada. He had at least provided 58 impressive runs though and had been at the crease for more than two hours.
Mendis was handling the bowlers with ease in a 75-run fifth-wicket stand with Mathews, but he became over-confident as he tried to ramp a Rabada bouncer from around the wicket and edged through to wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock.
Opener Kaushal Silva impressed again as he made 48 in 204 minutes, but he fell in the second over after tea, trapped lbw by Rabada as he nipped the second ball of his fourth spell back into the pads.
While Rabada has two for 72 in 19 overs and will surely have an impact with the second new ball on Friday morning, Maharaj said the flattening of the pitch means he will still have lots of work to do, having bowled 29 overs on Thursday and taken two for 84.
“We spoke before about it not being an easy task because the pitch is much better and we have to invest in toil. My job is to support the fast bowlers, do my basics and stick to my lengths. When the ball gets soft it’s a bit more difficult to bowl with, but we had to invest with the older ball and hopefully the harder ball will spin and bounce a bit more,” Maharaj said.
South Africa were earlier left wondering what would break a determined Sri Lankan opening partnership and in the end it was a run out that did the trick as the tourists reached tea on 118 for two.
Dimuth Karunaratne and Silva stayed together for 142 minutes and put on 87 for the first wicket, Sri Lanka’s best opening partnership in South Africa and their second-best anywhere against the Proteas, forcing the hosts to wait until midway through the second session for their first breakthrough.
It came in the 33rd over of the innings as Silva pushed Maharaj into the covers and set off for a quick single. It caught Karunaratne (43) by surprise, the left-hander stuttering and hesitating before eventually setting off. His desperate dive was just beaten by a superb piece of fielding by JP Duminy, rushing in quickly and throwing off-balance, wicketkeeper De Kock completing the run out with smart glovework.
“I am disappointed because I did the hardest part and I was seeing the ball well. The first 15 overs with the new ball are not easy and you have to wait for loose balls, but it was my mistake to get run out. I must have had something on my mind and I got stuck in the middle of the pitch,” Karunaratne said.
Sri Lanka persisted with their inexplicable decision to bat Kusal Perera at three and he only lasted 13 balls for six runs before once again flashing outside off stump and being caught behind, this time off Maharaj, who was obtaining some turn and bounce.
South Africa had declared their second innings midway through the morning session on the fourth day, damning Sri Lanka to a 173-over marathon for survival.
And Karunaratne and Silva started well, surviving the first 14 overs before lunch unscathed, as they took their team to 27 without loss.
Proteas captain Faf du Plessis declared South Africa’s second innings closed on 406 for six after 47 minutes on the fourth morning, after he lost partner De Kock, trapped lbw for a fluent 69 off 86 balls by spinner Rangana Herath after he missed a slog-sweep.
Du Plessis was unbeaten on 67, having also faced 86 deliveries, when he called an end to proceedings.
Herath finished with one for 84 in 24.5 overs, but he was overshadowed by off-spinner De Silva, who took two for 91 in 15 overs, his career-best in Tests.
The fact that openers Karunaratne and Silva scored at less than two runs an over in their hour together before lunch said everything about their determined mindset, their battle being one for survival more than anything else.
Vernon Philander and Abbott delivered immaculate spells with the new ball, but it was Rabada, trying to put a spluttering first-innings display behind him, who came closest to making the breakthrough, a lifter finding the glove of the diminutive Silva on five, but the ball just eluded the desperate dive of wicketkeeper De Kock.