Du Plessis magnum opus outshines Tharanga heroics

It could’ve been only one man’s party – Sri Lanka’s stand-in captain Upal Tharanga or Faf du Plessis, the Man Friday of the South African skipper AB de Villiers. Eventually, the wait for that answer became the premise of the excitement the Cape Town One Day International (ODI) on Tuesday (February 6) delivered.

The crowd that swelled in number as the match progressed witnessed two fine innings – one a classy century, which put all the theory of dominance in practical application and the other being far more aggressive, if not any less sublime, to please the underdog cheerleaders. In the end, Wayne Parnell breached Lakshan Sandakan’s weak defence and uprooted the stumps, before letting out a roar of celebration. The South African players huddled around him and the big screen read 4-0, which meant the hosts were still in pursuit of dethroning Australia from the top of ICC ODI Rankings.

De Villiers won the toss and elected to bat. The conditions had a bit to offer the pacers with the bounce and movement. Sri Lanka’s new-ball pair of Nuwan Kulasekara and Lahiru Kumara got the ball to come in and leave the South African openers at will. The batsmen needed to be a bit watchful to see off that period of play, but Hashim Amla didn’t, poking lazily at a delivery outside off to find his marching orders from the umpire. Quinton de Kock, meanwhile, cut, drove and flicked his way to dominance.

Du Plessis, who walked out to bat at No. 3 first combined with de Kock and later with de Villiers to add back-to-back century stands and help South Africa take command over the proceedings. The early fall had little impact as the hosts continued to attack the opposition bowlers, with little risk, but some fine timing and placement. With the ball moving around in the first hour of play, there was still some threat open, but once the spinners came into operation, even that danger was arrested; none better signified than de Kock’s audacious slog over the long on fence to welcome Sandakan into the attack in the 14th over.

The southpaw departed soon after the second-wicket century-stand had provided a strong platform when he edged slow left-armer Sachith Pathirana in the 17th over. Much credit for the wicket, however, goes to skipper Tharanga, who pulled off a blinder at first slip, stretching his arm to the left.

But with singles and twos coming rather easily, and the Sri Lankan spinners finding little assistance off the pitch – easy-paced and predictable turn – they couldn’t put the right amount of pressure on the in-form AB de Villiers. De Villiers and Du Plessis ensured the momentum rested with them as they worked the ball around gaps, eliminated risk and still scored at over run-a-ball.

As the overs went by, almost seamlessly, du Plessis kept surpassing landmarks. 25th fifty, eighth century, two century stands, personal highest score, highest score by a batsman at Newlands and a few more that kept the statisticians as busy as he was in the middle. De Villiers, too, joined the part briefly, when he reached his fifty off 51 balls, one delivery before his deputy’s century.

A set de Villiers and 14 overs remaining usually spells two things easily – bowler’s nightmare and cricket lover’s delight. However, just when the moment was ripe, batting on 64, he fell against the run of play when he attempted a sweep shot off Pathirana and was bowled round his legs.

Jean-Paul Duminy had as good a platform as he would have liked to take on the Sri Lankan bowlers. But he attempted to go on the aggressive a little too early. There were some scratchy slogs before he timed a cut perfectly to the fielder at deep square leg. His innings didn’t last long, and remained one of the few blips in an otherwise flawless batting display.

But soon after he fell, du Plessis registered his maiden 150 and from thereon, swiftly moved his innings to fifth gear and toyed with the bowlers, exhibiting strokes of disdain. 105 runs were added in the last 10 overs in the process.

As the innings progressed, the focus slowly shifted from South Africa’s innings to du Plessis’s score. The long-held number of 188, notched up by Gary Kirsten in the 1996 World Cup game against the United Arab Emirates, was at stake. But it wasn’t to be as he clubbed one high into the air and Asela Gunaratne, running from long on settled under it to hold on to the catch safely. The crowd stood up, the Sri Lankan players walked up to congratulate him. An innings as classy as the Newlands crowd could have hoped to witness.

141 balls. 16 boundaries. 3 sixes. 185 runs.

With nothing to lose, Sri Lanka went after the South African bowlers right from the first over, in a kind of attack that took the opposition by surprise. Having put up below-par shows with the bat throughout the series, the counter-attack approach seemed to have suited them the best.

There was bounce on offer and the South African pacers couldn’t resist their temptation of bowling short. Taking advantage of the field restrictions, both Tharanga and Niroshan Dickwella gladly played on the up and found boundaries with ease. It was a tactic the hosts employed throughout the innings and paid dearly, with several edges running past the boundary ropes.

Once the platform was laid, the batsmen grew in confidence and even the required rate was brought under six and a half an over. In order to get the pace off the ball, de Villiers employed his spinners early. But with the easy-paced wicket on offer at Newlands, the spinners got little assistance off it. The Sri Lankan batsmen relished the opportunity further and gladly continued their aggressive approach.

The openers laid a superb platform, stroking 100 off the first 10 overs before adding 39 more off the next 37 balls. Dickwella, however, was the first to depart when he looked to slog Dwaine Pretorius into the crowd, but couldn’t get the ball beyond Farhaan Behardien at deep mid wicket. The first wicket did bring a bit of shift in momentum, with runs drying up slightly. However, once Kusal Mendis bought his time in the middle, Tharanga unleashed himself on the South African bowlers. With the scoreboard reading 196 for 1 mid-way through the Sri Lankan innings, the chase looked well and truly on. In the process, Tharanga also brought up his 14th One-Day International ton, off only 73 balls – fastest by a Sri Lankan against South Africa.

However, in a space of 12 balls, both the set batsmen departed, and the innings fell apart. After a period of lull, Asela Gunaratne and Sandun Weerakkudy revived it with their 79-run stand for the fifth wicket off only 59 balls. Once the duo fell, the lower order succumbed without much fight and gifted the contest to the hosts easier than they should have.

Weerakkody, who had brought out the reverse sweep with effectiveness several times in the innings, eventually paid for it with his wicket, top-edging Tahir’s delivery to Parnell at point. His wicket ended Sri Lanka’s hopes of being in the chase, and not unreasonably. They eventually folded for 327 – 40 short of South Africa’s total.

Amidst all the celebrations in the crowd and the South African camp, the faces in the Sri Lankan dressing room remained dejected. Even as it was largely a one-man effort, the team needed that victory as a shot in the arm to convince themselves, if not the world, that they are good enough. Unfortunately in sports, the underdogs are applauded, never celebrated.

Tharanga’s blitz remained a sideshow to du Plessis’s magnum opus. It is only for the Newlands crowd to cherish for a long time to come; cricketing folklore is unlikely to find a place for it.

90 balls. 11 boundaries. 7 sixes. 119 runs.

Brief scores: South Africa 367/5 in 50 overs (Faf du Plessis 185, AB de Villiers 64, Quinton de Kock 55; Sachith Pathirana 2-55) beat Sri Lanka 327 in 48.1 overs (Upul Tharanga 119, Sandun Weerakkody 58; Wayne Parnell 4-58) by 40 runs.

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