By Michael Owen-Smith | December 28, 2016
With his eleventh five-wicket haul, Vernon Philander made life tough for Sri Lankan batsmen. © AFP
Vernon Philander set the tone for the day with a wicket with his first delivery and two in the opening over to give the Standard Bank Proteas the '80 plus' lead he had predicted the previous evening, before Stephen Cook scored his third Test century and his second in successive matches to bat Sri Lanka out of the first Sunfoil Test match on day three at St. George's Park on Wednesday.
Philander's first delivery of the day was the perfect away swinger that did just the right amount to find the edge of Dhananjaya de Silva's bat and remove Sri Lanka's last hope of batting down the first innings deficit to an insignificant number.
Instead, the deficit of 81 runs was truly significant and became even more so when Cook shared successive century partnerships with Dean Elgar and Hashim Amla to rule out any thought of a Sri Lankan fightback.
By the time Cook was dismissed for a career best 117 (178 balls, 11 fours) the Proteas lead was already 326 with seven wickets still in the bank.
By the close that lead had swelled to 432 with Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock having already shared a stand of 74 in 15.2 overs and, with nearly 200 overs still left in the match and the weather forecast good for the remaining two days, Du Plessis will have the luxury of a declaration that will leave him with a generous number of overs with the second new ball should that be necessary.
Philander collected his 11th five-wicket haul and is returning to his consistency of old with two five-wicket hauls and one of four in his last four Test matches.
But the statistics that will undoubtedly have pleased the Proteas strategists the most was the performance of Cook and Elgar in sharing century partnerships in both innings. This has been an area of vulnerability for the Proteas since the retirement of Graeme Smith and this and the fact that Hashim Amla looked much like the champion of old were probably the two festive season gifts most appreciated.
Cook and Elgar provided only the 10th instance of an opening pair sharing century partnerships in both innings and the second involving South African batsmen, the previous one being way back in 1929 at Edgbaston when Bruce Mitchell, on debut, and Bob Catterall matched the feat.
Cook has now scored three centuries in his first seven Test matches (12 innings) and is the first South African to score three centuries in his debut year. Only Alan Melville has done better than him in scoring four centuries in his first seven Test matches (10 innings) with all four being scored in successive innings before and after World War II.
In a global context Mohammed Azharuddin scored centuries in each of his three first Tests for India and Sir Everton Weekes scored five centuries (in successive innings) for the West Indies in his first seven Tests.
What one likes most about Cook is that he has scored 40 or more in six of his 12 Test innings which stamps him as a player who knows how to stay in and capitalise. His conversion rate of two half-centuries against three centuries is outstanding which is similar to what Ashwell Prince achieved in his distinguished career (11 centuries and 11 half-centuries).
Although the Proteas will again expect their seam attack to inflict the brunt of the damage they will have noted the fact that De Silva started to extract gentle spin and bounce in an evening spell that brought him the wickets of JP Duminy and Temba Bavuma in the space of 7 balls. In addition, Rangana Herath should have had De Kock stumped on 7.
The perfect final piece in the jigsaw puzzle for the Proteas would be for Kesh Maharaj to play a major role in the Sri Lanka second innings and there is likely to be opportunity for both him and Duminy when the ball gets old.
As for Sri Lanka, it just wasn't their day. Philander's opening spell seemed to deflate them and their intensity seemed below the level they had achieved in the South African first innings. To their credit they battled gamely away and were not helped by two weather disruptions that meant they bowled 40 overs in a long afternoon session.
They comfortably bowled the minimum number of overs for the day in spite of the fact that the game was rapidly being taken away from them with the Proteas retaining a run rate of four to the over throughout their innings.
Day Three was a big moving day for the Proteas and may have set the tone for the remainder of the series.
© Cricket South Africa