South Africa’s victory over Sri Lanka on Friday provided arguably the most lackluster contest of this World Cup. It wasn’t expected to pan out that way, though.

While the Proteas went into the game after becoming the second team to be eliminated from the semi-finals race, the Lankans started the day with a lot to play for. A win would’ve kept their dream of sneaking into the knockouts alive. But surprisingly, they simply didn’t show up.

After Faf du Plessis won the toss and elected to field, Dimuth Karunaratne said that he wanted to bat first anyway. The left-hander’s dismissal off the first ball of the match didn’t really vindicate his thought process.

Despite losing their skipper and highest run-scorer in the tournament that early, Sri Lanka put forth an attractive counter-attack to gain the upper hand for a brief period. Kagiso Rabada’s erratic opening spell along with Kusal Perera and Avishka Fernando’s stroke play put South Africa on the back foot.

No intent

Sri Lanka raced to 67/1 in 9.4 overs and looked on course for a formidable total. But that was going to be their highest point in the match. The next ball saw Fernando throw his wicket away after getting another good start, and what followed was a slow death for the Lankans as well as everyone watching.

From 67/2 at the end of the first powerplay, Sri Lanka got to 163/7 at the start of the final powerplay. They added 96 runs for the loss of five wickets in those 30 overs. The Lankans have the best strike-rate in the first ten overs in this World Cup, but they simply haven’t figured out what to do beyond that point. And Friday provided another painful exhibition of their inefficiency with the bat in the middle overs.

Kusal Mendis, Angelo Mathews, Dhananjaya de Silva and Jeevan Mendis were all guilty of showing absolutely no intent. Sri Lanka had lost two set batsmen in Fernando and Perera in quick succession but they were still very much in the contest at that time. However, all their middle-order did was offer dead bats. And when the pressure mounted, they looked for release-shots and perished. As a result, their team ended up with 203 runs from 297 deliveries, which is inexplicable in today’s day and age.

“We just weren’t able to rotate the strike and get singles. That is the key here and when you don’t get singles you only go for big shots,” Karunaratne rued after the match.

Sri Lanka's middle-order against South Africa

Player Batting Position Balls Faced Runs Scored Strike-rate
Kusal Mendis 4 51 23 45.10
Angelo Mathews 5 29 11 37.93
Dhananjaya de Silva 6 41 24 58.54
Jeevan Mendis 7 46 18 39.13
On mobile phones, scroll across to view full table

Fine comeback

While Sri Lanka’s batting was uninspiring to say the least, their life was made difficult by one mighty impressive spell of fast-bowling. Dwaine Pretorius broke the opposition’s back in a span of two overs by removing Fernando and Perera.

The 30-year-old hasn’t been a regular in the South African team since making his One-Day International debut in 2016, having played just 21 ODIs in three years. Even in this tournament, he was included in the XI for the opener against England but was made to warm the bench in every game after that. But with not much to play for against Sri Lanka, the Proteas decided to try something different and replaced Lungi Ngidi with Pretorius.

This switch did the trick for the South Africans as Pretorius claimed the key breakthroughs and ended up taking three wickets, including that of Kusal Mendis. He returned with exceptional figures of 3/25 from his 10 overs and played a key role in choking Sri Lanka’s run-flow. What stood out in the right-arm pacer’s spell was how he kept things very simple. Of course, he was aided by Sri Lanka’s timid approach, but he did well to not try too many variations and stick to a good length.

“I am happy that we got over the line today and glad that I could play a part in that,” Pretorius said after the match. “I try and work as hard as possible when I’m not a part of the team. At the end of the day, I am happy that I was ready for the opportunity and glad that I was able to contribute. I think Faf and I spoke after my third over, we just realised that hitting the top of the off stump is a good idea on this pitch. Glad that I was able to execute it.”

Partnership, finally

At the halfway stage of the match, a Sri Lankan victory seemed highly unlikely. But South Africa’s recent form with the bat didn’t inspire much confidence and the early dismissal of Quinton de Kock brought the contest alive.

However, that’s when Du Plessis joined Hashim Amla at the crease to stitch a memorable partnership for the second wicket. Even a target as small as 204 can get tricky at times but the senior batsmen were in control from the get-go. They seemed to know very well that all they needed to do was to stay at the crease and the runs would come.

The lack of situational awareness has been the bane for South Africa in this World Cup. They’ve struggled to post big totals because their batters haven’t stuck together and built partnerships. On Friday, Amla and Du Plessis did exactly what was required of them in their unbeaten 175-run stand. They showed respect to the good deliveries, waited for the bad ones, and kept the scoreboard ticking.

“The basics of batting were shown today,” said Du Plessis in the post-match presentation ceremony. “We’ve batted well all through the tournament but we just didn’t have guys batting through. Hashim gave us a good foundation, one big partnership makes it look so much easier. We hadn’t done that consistently in the tournament.”

When the dust settles on this tournament, the Proteas will look back at this partnership between Amla and Du Plessis with admiration, but they’ll also rue the fact that their batsmen didn’t show such application in the earlier games. As far as Sri Lanka are concerned, the loss to South Africa will be a bitter pill to swallow. They had a good chance of making it to the semi-finals but they seem to have blown it. And they have themselves to blame for it as much as anything.