AB de Villiers' bright start as South Africa's limited-overs captain has hit a speed bump and it did so in embarrassing fashion for a man who prides himself on professionalism, athleticism and commitment to the cause.
South Africa put on a barely believable and sometimes-comical fielding display, mixing terrific catches like Alviro Petersen's leap on the boundary to dismiss Kumar Sangakkara with horrible gaffes such as Morne Morkel's drop of Angelo Mathews. "We weren't great in the field today," de Villiers said. "We created a few chances that we didn't take."
Usually energetic and committed in the field, South Africa appeared frantic and pressured as Sri Lanka built confidently during their chase of 300. Dinesh Chandimal and Thisara Perera attacked bad balls and ran well between the wickets, although they had one mix-up that could have had either of them dismissed. de Villiers said being under that sort of pressure had tested his ability to use his bowlers, and he felt he could have done it better.
"I needed to take a few chances because we needed wickets and I thought the bowlers did really well on a good pitch. But I made a few tactical errors and used the wrong bowlers at the wrong time."
The decision to keep the spinners on against a fluent Perera was one such strategic mistake. "I thought the spinner could get us one," he said. "We tried to bounce him but the ball wouldn't come up. It was one of those pitches where it was not very easy to take wickets. We tried slower balls. I tried every single bowler in the team."
Wickets were always going to be hard to come by on a flat pitch, and de Villiers admitted South Africa had actually lost the game with the bat. After a speedy start, they were well placed to score over 300, but had to settle for 299 for 7. They lost four wickets for 47 runs and their lower-middle order was unable to score as freely as de Villiers had against a regrouped Sri Lankan attack that bowled with discipline.
de Villiers accepted full responsibility for South Africa's slowdown towards the end of their innings. "We should have got to 330 but I got out at a very bad stage. We needed a partnership there."
de Villiers was bowled for 96 by a Perera slower ball in the 41st over with South Africa on 250 for 5. Wayne Parnell, Robin Peterson and Vernon Philander are capable of big hitting but were forced to play a more watchful game. South Africa scored only 49 runs off the last 9.1 overs.
"We put the lower order under huge pressure so they couldn't play the game they would normally play," de Villiers said. "But with the ball, they [Parnell and Philander] showed variation and skill, and then we let them down in the field."
Despite the stumble towards the end of the innings, South Africa can take heart from the pressure they created at the start and the return to form of Graeme Smith. With talk over the former captain facing the axe, Smith announced his intention to continue playing the 50-over format of the game brutally. "Hopefully he makes it happen now and maximises this," de Villiers said. "I am expecting more runs from him in Jo'burg."
The final match of the series will be South Africa's last home appearance of the summer before they head to New Zealand and England. de Villiers said they want end this series in as strong a position as possible. "We spoke about ruthlessness before this game but we weren't that ruthless. We'll have to do that better. We wanted a whitewash but we didn't do that. We want to make it 4-1 now."