On the up again, South Africa ends 2016 with win v Sri Lanka

PORT ELIZABETH, South Africa (AP) South Africa ended 2016 with a 206-run win over Sri Lanka in the first test on Friday, a step closer to a third straight series win and on the way back up after losing its No. 1 ranking 12 months ago.

South Africa’s bowlers needed less than 14 overs on the last day at St. George’s Park to wrap up the match as Sri Lanka wilted in the face of a disciplined bowling attack to go from 240-5 overnight to 281 all out chasing a big target of 488.

Quick Kagiso Rabada and spinner Keshav Maharaj took three wickets each in Sri Lanka’s second innings, while Kyle Abbott finished with five in the match and Vernon Philander collected six.

Fourth-ranked South Africa’s victory in the series opener was set up by its 406-6 declared in its second innings, with 117 from opener Stephen Cook and half-centuries by Faf du Plessis, Quinton de Kock and Dean Elgar. The thorough batting performance gave South Africa the upper hand after the teams tussled for superiority on a seaming pitch over the first two days.

That left Sri Lanka needing what would have been a world-record 488 to win the test, and South Africa was in control throughout the last three days of the test.

”It worked out really well in this game for us,” South Africa captain Du Plessis said. ”We did everything right.”

Sri Lanka resisted in pockets in the final innings, with an 87-run opening stand from Dimuth Karunaratne and Kaushal Silva, and half-centuries from Kusal Mendis (58) and captain Angelo Mathews (59).

But Friday’s result was inevitable when Abbott removed Mathews in the third over of the morning and Dhananjaya de Silva, the last recognized batsman, four overs later.

Sri Lanka ultimately managed the highest fourth-innings ever at St. George’s Park, but the tourists’ young top order looked lost in the first innings to be 205 all out when the pitch favored the quick bowlers. The Sri Lankans, who have never won a series in South Africa and now slip to just one win and nine defeats in 11 tests in the country, will likely face even quicker wickets in the second and third matches in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

”We need to toughen up,” Sri Lanka captain Mathews said.

South Africa are favorites to go on and win the three-test series on the basis of Sri Lanka’s struggles in the country, but also because of a strong revival from the Proteas.

A year ago, South Africa had returned from a poor tour of India, then lost a home series against England, and Hashim Amla gave up the captaincy. South Africa plunged as low as No. 7 in the test rankings after that, but has rebounded to win series at home to New Zealand and, the big one, away in Australia last month. If it wins the series over Sri Lanka, South Africa will move up to No. 3, at least, and could go as high as No. 2.

Du Plessis, South Africa’s third skipper this year after the injured AB de Villiers also stepped down, said he felt his team had more to give and the batting lineup, especially, was probably only operating at 80 percent.

”I feel that we can do a little bit more,” he said. ”Just lifting that bar a little bit higher.”

The second test in Cape Town starts on Monday.