Top-scorer Quinton de Kock admitted South Africa were “caught off guard" when Sri Lanka bowled them out for 235 on the first day of the first Test at Kingsmead on Wednesday.
Underdogs Sri Lanka, seemingly in disarray going into the match, reached 49 for one at the close to finish the day in a strong position.
Left-arm opening bowler Vishwa Fernando and right-arm seamer Kasun Rajitha, playing in their fourth and fifth Tests respectively, did the major damage. Fernando took four for 62 and Rajitha claimed three for 68.
“We were a bit unaware of the new guys. I think they caught us off guard," said De Kock who made 80.
“We had good game plans against (opening bowler) Suranga Lakmal but the two new guys were unseen before. They bowled really well, they didn’t miss their lengths often and they made us work hard for what we got."
Asked what specific problems Fernando and Rajitha caused, De Kock said: “The angle of their bowling, the skills they had, their actions, the skiddiness, the bounce. They are two solid bowlers and they will give us trouble throughout the series, so we will just have to keep our eyes open for them."
Fernando got extravagant swing early in the day after new captain Dimuth Karunaratne won the toss and sent South Africa in, while Lakmal got steep bounce in an opening spell of one for six in seven overs.
Fernando arguably owed his place in the team to the fact that three of Sri Lanka’s leading fast bowlers were missing because of injury.
But he produced a superb opening spell, having Dean Elgar caught behind and bowling Aiden Markram with a ball which swung back into the stumps.
Fernando said he enjoyed bowling in South African conditions compared to those in Sri Lanka, where he said fast bowlers tended to struggle on unhelpful pitches.
“The ball was swinging in the morning," he said.
He had Dean Elgar caught behind for nought with his fourth ball and there was still no run on the board two balls later when an appeal for leg before wicket was turned down by umpire Aleem Dar, although replays showed he should have been given out.
By the time Karunaratne signalled for a review, the players were told they had taken too long -– although it was shown afterwards they were three seconds inside the permitted 15 seconds for a request.
“It is the umpire’s word," said Fernando.
The lapse proved inexpensive, however, as Amla was caught at second slip off Lakmal for three before Fernando produced the ball of the day to bowl Markram for 11.
South Africa were 17 for three at that stage. Temba Bavuma and Faf du Plessis put on 72 for the fourth wicket before Du Plessis was caught down the leg side off Rajitha for 35.
Bavuma looked the most assured of the South African batsmen but was run out for 47 off 68 balls, with seven fours, when a straight drive by De Kock richocheted off bowler Fernando’s boot into the stumps at the bowler’s end.
De Kock, batting at number six because South Africa picked five specialist bowlers, found himself batting with the tail. He hit 80 off 94 balls before he was last man out.
Sri Lanka lost Lahiru Thirimanne, caught behind off Dale Steyn for nought, but Karunaratne batted confidently to be 28 not out at the close, while new cap Oshada Fernando went on the attack when Du Plessis turned to spin bowling as the light faded to finish on 17 not out.
Sri Lanka have lost six of their most recent seven Tests and were disrupted by injuries and several changes in personnel, including the dropping of regular captain Dinesh Chandimal.