Yet the Sri Lankans cruised to victory in Port Elizabeth early on Day 3 of the second match against test cricket's No. 2-ranked team, reaching the victory target of 197 for the loss of just two wickets.
If they avoid defeat in Durban, the touring side will become the first side from Asia to win a Test series in South Africa.
Sri Lanka came into the second Test on a high after Kusal Perera's miraculous knock handed them a 1-0 lead with a Test to go, but somehow managed to turn in an even more impressive performance in the second Test. The islanders were without their designated captain Dinesh Chandimal, who missed out on selection due to poor form.
The never-before-seen moment sent the cricket world into a frenzy. In the veteran Dale Steyn, the hosts had arguably the best fast bowler of the last generation while Kagiso Rabada is one of the best in the current lot. However, the position of Aiden Markram, who last played an ODI in November 2018 in Australia, is unclear.
The win gave the tourists a 2-0 series triumph after they clinched the first test in Durban by one wicket in Durban last Saturday.
"Maybe, mentally the boys were off the boil at the end of a long season, but that's not an excuse once again".
New Zealand are second with 107 points and will need to win an upcoming three-Test home series against Bangladesh, starting Thursday, in order to retain second place.
Du Plessis however refused to blame the pitches, insisting that his batsmen need to introspect and pull up their socks ahead of their next worldwide assignment.
"It is great to have Lungi back in the squad after a lengthy period on the sidelines caused by the injury he suffered in the white ball series in Australia previous year", CSA National Selection Panel convener Linda Zondi said. And I didn't hear any language in the changeroom about what's happened in the past, about having to bat on hard pitches previously.
Appointed only as an "interim" captain, Karunaratne said he had a simple message for his players when he took over at a time of apparent turmoil in Sri Lankan cricket.
But the duo batted with confidence and good judgment and at the same time produced the highest partnership of the tour in making an impressive 163 runs for the third wicket. "So, for me that's an absolute no-no", he remarked. It's a massive dent, I thought up until this Test series we were looking good. Zondi said he hoped that Duminy, regarded as a key to South Africa's World Cup hopes because of his batting, fielding and off-spin bowling, would be fit for the final two matches against Sri Lanka.