Sri Lanka held their nerve to defeat South Africa in the opening match of Group One in the World Twenty20. The margin of five runs, however, was an indication of how close this tournament promises to be.
Qualification for the semi-final stages is likely to be by a fag-paper width; for several periods of their pursuit of 166 to win South Africa seemed to be in control, but the loss of wickets crucially undermined them.
The way in which Sri Lanka set about their innings after winning the toss suggested a total of above 180 was in their ambit. But the failure of all their veteran big guns – Tillekeratne Dilshan, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara – forced their less experienced colleagues to regroup.
The opener Kushal Perera made 61 from 40 balls, including 17 from the first over of the match, bowled by Dale Steyn. Had Perera gone on, Sri Lanka might have achieved their initial objective, but his dismissal in the 14th over left them slightly adrift in the closing stages. Steyn’s bowling then, full of well-directed yorkers, exemplified what a smart operator he remains.
It seemed about par, and South Africa marshalled their batting resources well at first. Quinton de Kock set off with abandon, and his departure brought in J-P Duminy to play the aggressor’s role. Duminy and Hashim Amla put on 50 in six overs for the second wicket, and when a restrained Amla was out AB de Villiers came in to keep the board ticking over at a lick.
But De Villiers edged carelessly behind, Duminy underestimated the wily spin of Sachithra Senanayake to be caught in the deep and South Africa had to start again. The returning Albie Morkel, whose career had seemed done and dusted, showed why he has revived it by hitting two successive sixes off Ajantha Mendis.
Unfortunately, in trying for the hat-trick he demonstrated why it might have started declining in the first place. At that stage the shot was not needed, and Dinesh Chandimal judged the boundary catch beautifully.
With Lasith Malinga up their sleeve in the final overs, Sri Lanka must have known the match was theirs to lose. They are accustomed to tight finishes in a way that South Africa down the years have never quite mastered. Ten runs from the 18th over left 18 needed from two. But a catch in the deep and two run-outs made a difficult task impossible.