Dilruwan Perera took six wickets to break South Africa. © Getty Images

Dilruwan Perera took six wickets to break South Africa. © Getty Images

No Dinesh Chandimal. No Chandika Hathurasinghe. No problem. Dilruwan Perera and Rangana Herath more than made up for the absence of their regular skipper and head coach by bringing South Africa to their knees as the spinners ran riot in the opening Test at Galle to give Sri Lanka a 278-run win and a 1-0 advantage in the two-Test series.

South Africa’s issues against spin were evident in the first innings when they were bundled out for 126 in response to Sri Lanka’s Dimuth Karunaratne-inspired 287, but it isn’t common to see the Faf du Plessis men fare poorly twice in a Test. And yet, that’s exactly what happened as Perera picked up six wickets and Herath scalped three to bundle the visitors out for 73 in 28.5 overs – their lowest score since readmission – with two days left in the contest.

Overall, Perera finished with ten wickets and Herath, who leapfrogged Shaun Pollock and Dale Steyn to ninth on the list of highest wicket-takers in Test cricket with 422 scalps from 92 Tests, ended this contest with five dismissals.

To gain a perspective of how advantageous the spinners found the strip, one needn’t look further than the 25 wickets that were accounted for by the tweakers.

So devious was the strip in bounce and turn that even Sri Lanka lost five of their batsmen to Keshav Maharaj (4/58) and Tabraiz Shamsi (1/37) in their second essay, which concluded on 190 from 57.4 overs. A target of 351 was expected to be a tough one to chase down on a pitch that showed signs of deterioration from the start of the second day, but it turned out to be impossible.

Starting the day on 111 for 4 with an already-impressive advantage of 272 runs, Sri Lanka relied on Angelo Mathews, overnight 14, to stand ground while the rest played around him. The former skipper did exactly what was expected of him en route to 35 but he was running out of partners as Kagiso Rabada inflicted one run out and picked up a couple of scalps to end with three wickets.

Steyn finally equalled Pollock’s record of 421 wickets, dismissing Lakshan Sandakan to put an end to Sri Lanka’s target-setting exercise. Suranga Lakmal, who chipped in with three wickets in the first innings, contributed with a crucial 33 not out to only enhance Sri Lanka’s chances.

Little did the hosts know that a fraction of that score would have sufficed against the flat-footed South Africans.

As they had in the first innings, Herath and Perera opened proceedings, and before South Africa’s bowlers could recover from their spells, they were padding up to take on the wily spinners. South Africa lost their fairly experienced top-order in no time and were reduced to 32 for 5 inside 15 overs, but unlike in the first innings where du Plessis offered a fight, this time around it was one-way traffic.

Perera sent back one batsman after another on his way to his best Test figures of 14-4-32-6, while Herath did his magic with 14-4-38-3. Sandakan, not to be left out, picked up the wicket of Shamsi in his only over to put South Africa out of their misery.

To put South Africa’s dismal showing in perspective, Karunaratne with 218 from two innings, including a game-changing 158 not out in the first innings, outscored South Africa’s match tally of 199 by 19 runs.