Galle, July 12: Dimuth Karunaratne ploughed a lone furrow for Sri Lanka as South Africa took charge on the opening day of the first Test in Galle.
The opener carried his bat on Thursday as the hosts struggled to find any rhythm after opting to make their opponents bowl, Karunaratne finishing 158 not out as Sri Lanka were dismissed for 287.
Plenty of his partners made starts but could not push on, and Sri Lanka's total would have been even less competitive had last man Lakshan Sandakan not added a timely 25.
Kagiso Rabada proved South Africa's main threat with 4-50, while there was also a wicket for the returning Dale Steyn.
Left-arm chinaman Tabraiz Shamsi contributed 3-91 in his second outing as Sri Lanka toiled, only the impressive Karunaratne scoring big on a pitch that is expected to turn more and more as the game goes on.
Sri Lanka finished the day on a high, though, as Rangana Herath took advantage of the early spin to remove Aiden Markram before the close, South Africa finishing 4-1 at the beginning of their reply.
The initial signs looked positive for Sri Lanka as Karunaratne and Danushka Gunathilaka made a steady start, only for Rabada to find a beautiful line outside off stump to have the latter caught behind.
Dhananjaya de Silva helped push the score on to 70-1 but four quick wickets saw the hosts slump to 119-5 – Rabada and Steyn doing the damage as the Proteas' seamers found a good length.
Karunaratne kept his patient, watchful innings ticking over while panic ensued around him, bringing up his half century off 82 balls with a quick single.
He survived a scare soon after as Markram dropped him at short leg, and slowly pushed towards an eighth Test century.
A straight drive to the boundary off Shamsi took Karunaratne to three figures but by then Sri Lanka were eight wickets down and facing an uphill struggle to post a credible total.
Stumps, Day 1: SA 4/1 after 4 overs. Elgar 4*, Maharaj 0*, trail by 283. Last wicket: Markram 0.— Cricket South Africa (@OfficialCSA) July 12, 2018
SL 287. Rabada 4/50, Shamsi 3/91, Philander 1/28, Steyn 1/54. #SLvSA #ProteaFire pic.twitter.com/r6uPlFI142
Stand-in captain Suranga Lakmal and Sandakan gave him much-needed support for the final two wickets, Sri Lanka adding 63 as Karunaratne reached 150 for the fourth time in his career.
Eventually Sri Lanka's resistance came to an end as Shamsi had Sandakan stumped, but it left South Africa with a tricky four-over spell to navigate.
Markram was unable to do so as Herath drew him forward and found an edge that Angelo Matthews gobbled up at slip, but it was a rare disappointment on a productive day for the tourists.