Predicting Test cricket in recent weeks has been a fool's game, but the opening day at Centurion went largely according to expectations as Sri Lanka struggled to handle the home side's bowling attack on a helpful pitch. Vernon Philander continued his prolific emergence with his third five-wicket haul in three matches - making him just the fifth bowler to achieve the feat - as Sri Lanka crumbled to 180. Although Graeme Smith fell moments before the close it was emphatically South Africa's day and they are on course for a handsome lead.
As they had against Australia, Philander and Dale Steyn combined to do much of the damage with nine wickets between them which ensured a poor day for Morne Morkel didn't seriously cost the home side. After being inserted on a green pitch there were low expectations for Sri Lanka so three down at lunch represented a decent morning's work and then during the afternoon 156 for 4 was the basis for a competitive total. However, Sri Lanka have dealt in some serious collapses this year and here they registered a demise of 6 for 24 in five overs with Philander and Steyn both claiming two wickets in two balls.
Philander's success for the day had begun with the key wicket of Kumar Sangakkara, currently the No. 1 Test batsman in the world, who was able to play despite the split webbing he suffered in the warm-up match. Sangakkara's stay in the middle was brief as Philander produced a delivery that bounced off a length and the batsman followed it. Fifteen minutes before lunch he had a second with a delivery that swung back between Tharanga Paranavitana's bat and pad to end a stubborn stand of 56 with Mahela Jayawardene.
Philander was then the bowler to get South Africa back on track after they'd lost their way for an hour during the afternoon. Morkel suffered a day to forget as he firstly had Thilan Samaraweera taken at third slip when he overstepped - a no-ball called after the on-field umpires asked for a closer look - and that would have left Sri Lanka 91 for 5. Instead, Morkel lost his control when he changed ends and a two-over spell cost 23 as Angelo Mathews latched onto regular short and wide deliveries.
As the hosts were threatening to waste their toss advantage Philander was recalled to the attack although his success was a duel effort along with the DRS. Samaraweera edged a length delivery and the appeal was initially turned down by Rod Tucker, but South Africa's signal for a review was instantaneous which showed a small mark on the edge from Hot Spot. The same technology came to the fore again next ball when Tucker turned down another appeal, for a catch down the leg side off Kaushal Silva, but this time Smith's review appeared more in hope than expectation yet a faint mark showed up on Silva's glove.
There was no hat-trick for Philander (or the DRS) although another wicket soon followed when Imran Tahir found Thisara Perera's edge with a trademark googly and Jacques Kallis held a superb catch at slip with the ball having deflected off Mark Boucher's leg. Mathews, who produced some crunching back-foot boundaries, tried to keep the innings afloat but clearly didn't have much faith in his lower order and edged to second slip, as he advanced down the pitch, to hand Philander his fifth. Yet none of Philander's victims was the most culpable batsman for the day.
That dubious honour goes to the captain, Tillakaratne Dilshan, who played an awful shot as he tried to flick Steyn over the leg side and offered mid-on a simple catch. Even the South Africans appeared surprised at the generous offer. By his nature Dilshan can be a hit-or-miss batsman, but his team deserved better especially when conditions demanded care and attention.
Steyn made an important breakthrough after lunch when Jayawardene, who began the innings needing 46 runs to become the first Sri Lanka batsman to reach 10,000 in Tests, pushed outside off and offered a catch to first slip. Jayawardene had a lean series against Pakistan in UAE but showed a touch of class in tough conditions as he played the ball late to account for the movement. He was well aware he had wasted his hard work. Steyn later did a comprehensive clean-up job on the final two wickets as neither Chanaka Welegedera or Dilhara Fernando showed any inclination to get into line.
South Africa began their innings after tea and found life much simpler than the Sri Lankans. There was the occasional alarm against the new ball - the life hadn't disappeared from the pitch - but Welegedara and Perera didn't have the incisiveness of their counterparts. Smith led the way as he picked off anything on his pads while Jacques Rudolph, under pressure to secure his Test spot, was more circumspect having damaged his finger in the field which needed a trip to hospital.
Smith reached his half-century from 80 balls with a drive down the ground; a sign that his game is in decent order. However, late in the day Sri Lanka finally had a moment to cheer when Smith played across the line of a full Fernando delivery. It gave the visitors something to cling to overnight but they still have a huge task ahead of them.