Kaushal Silva and Kumar Sangakkara took advantage of some average bowling in the evening session on day four, to set up an intriguing final day.
The day started with the controversy over Vernon Philander’s ball-tampering charge still swirling in the air, but the Proteas brushed that off to set Sri Lanka a target of 370. Unfortunately, the bowlers let things slip in the final two hours of the day, to leave the game in the balance, Sri Lanka trailing by 260 runs, with nine wickets in hand.
Having declared on 206-6 at tea, the Proteas came out for the evening session looking to claim at least three wickets and drive home the advantage provided by their batsmen.
Things began well when a pumped up Dale Steyn had Upul Tharanga caught behind. The opener looked to free his arms to a full ball outside off and he was caught behind by a diving effort from wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock.
But that was as good as things got. Silva and Sangakkara were patient and inventive, waiting for the Proteas bowlers to make mistakes, and punishing them when they did.
The spin duo of JP Duminy and Imran Tahir, who has had a disappointing game on a helpful surface, came in for most of the pain, going for more than four runs an over each.
Sangakkara reached his fifty off 65 balls, and ended the day on 58. Silva will resume on 37. Sri Lanka finished on 110-1, 260 runs behind, leaving the game alive going into day five.
Many will question whether Hashim Amla declared too early, the decision to end things at tea looking increasingly dangerous given the performance from Sangakkara and Silva this evening.
He will need his bowlers to deliver on the final day of the game, or there is a chance the Proteas could lose this game from what looked to be a very commanding position.
This morning, South Africa would have hoped to remove one of Rangana Herath or Shaminda Eranga as soon as possible, but it ended up taking five overs. While that wasn’t a long rearguard action, the extra time in the field would have been frustrating.
It took a brilliant piece of slip catching from Ab de Villiers, diving backwards to his left, to remove Herath for 19 off the bowling of Morne Morkel, to end the innings on 292, and give the Proteas a lead of 163.
Sri Lanka then came out with captain Angelo Mathews forced to open the bowling with just one seamer, Suranga Lakmal, and his premier spinner, Herath.
Herath extracted turn and bounce from his first ball, exploiting the dry pitch and new ball to give the Proteas openers a thorough examination. At the other end Lakmal lacked penetration and was taken off after bowling three overs, replaced by Dilruwan Perera.
Both spinners kept the batsmen on their toes, with Mathews adding to the pressure by using two slips, a short leg and a leg slip at times.
Dean Elgar eventually fell to the pressure, attempting to drive a sharply turning ball out of the rough from Herath, but only managing to get an inside edge through to the keeper. He departed for 12 and the Proteas went to drinks on 33-1.
Faf du Plessis came to the crease at No 3 and he and Alviro Petersen battled against the spinners, who were both getting prodigious turn.
Petersen was the next to fall, getting a dubious edge to the keeper off Perera. Umpire Billy Bowden gave him out, but Petersen looked incensed, and reviewed. However, replays were inconclusive and the decision was upheld.
Hashim Amla then joined Du Plessis, and they survived to lunch, on 7 and 8 respectively. The Proteas went into the break on 63-2, 226 runs ahead.
The post-lunch session began the way the morning session had ended, with the spinners testing the defences of Du Plessis and Amla.
Amla was the first to counter the quality bowling from Herath and Perera, using his feet and wrists to good effect, punishing some bad balls.
Just as he was looking good, though, Herath tempted him to come down the track to one outside off, and his flick to the leg side ended up in the hands of Upul Tharanga. He made 22.
De Villiers joined Du Plessis at the crease, and the run rate immediately increased. De Villiers’ confidence seemed to inspire Du Plessis and the boundaries began to flow.
But again, just as he was looking set, Du Plessis got a ripper from Herath, who got one pitching outside leg to turn towards the off stump and upset Du Plessis’ wicket. His contribution was 37, by which time South Africa’s lead had gone past 300.
De Villiers continued to score with freedom, at some points looking like he was batting on a different pitch to the one everyone else has encountered today. He eventually became a victim of that desire to keep the scoring rate up, chopping one on to his stumps, attempting to hit the ball from outside off on to leg.
His well-played 51 took the lead past 350, which is what the Proteas would have been targeting when the innings started. The session ended with the wicket of De Kock, caught and bowled for 36, and SA declared on 206-6 at tea.