“Even as the visitors celebrate their new-found ability to split the workload among pacers and spinners, they would do well to remember that the best way to close out an innings, irrespective of conditions, remain pace”
Clive Eksteen and Pat Symcox will remember the first time South Africa toured Sri Lanka way back in 1993. The duo were the only spinners in the squad that had the fearsome twosome of Allan Donald and Brett Schultz.
At Moratuwa, in the first Test of the series, South Africa’s spinners bowled 72 of the 207.2 overs the visitors bowled, roughly 35% of the total overs they bowled. Allan Donald and Brett Schultz bowled more overs than the spinners in both innings and were seen as the primary wicket-takers despite the nature of the surface.
Times have changed, though. This Proteas outfit boasts of one of the best spinners in modern day Test cricket, Keshav Maharaj. They are still seen as a team with intimidating pace bowlers, but they aren’t the only ones South Africa rely on. In two series’, home and away, against the mighty Australians, Maharaj had his way with sharp, probing, incisive spells.
It spoke of a new South Africa and perhaps it is from here that the confidence to employ two frontline spinners at the expense of an extra batsman came at Galle in the first Test of the ongoing Sri Lankan tour. It was a bold move for a South African side which has an out of form no.6 batsman and the glaring absence of their best batsman in the last decade.
Yet, it reeked of aggression, something which has been exemplified multiple times in the Faf du Plessis era. It stemmed from an extraordinary confidence in their spinners – Maharaj and Tabraiz Shamsi. The chinaman spinner was in a direct face-off with the newbie in the squad, leg-spinner, Shaun Von Berg, when the Proteas played a warm-up last week. Shamsi picked up a five-fer, exuding enough confidence for the coach to push him into the starting XI.
It seemed the right call. Still does. But at the end of an engaging day’s play where the Proteas dominated two entire sessions, the hosts have 287 on the board, massive considering the conditions on offer and what the score read at tea break.
Maharaj and Shamsi bowled 42.4 overs in the day. Add in Elgar’s one over and you have a whopping 55.1% of the overs bowled by spinners on day one of a Test match. We are talking about a side which has three premier fast bowlers, each of whom have occupied the no.1 ranking among Test bowlers at one point of their career or the other.
When Shamsi came over the wicket and beat Kusal Mendis in flight with a brilliant, loopy leg-break, that spun past the outstretched defence of the batsman and tapped the off-stump, Proteas fans exulted. This felt different. They were used to seeing their tall, hit the deck seamers bounce out batsmen. But their spinner, all of two Tests old, beating an Asian batsman in flight on a day one wicket, was a feeling inexplicable to them.
Perhaps, the same emotions swayed Faf du Plessis. He was excited, almost frenzied by Shamsi’s success that he kept bowling him. When he finished 20 overs, the rest of the Proteas bowlers had barely bowled more than 10. Yet, the Proteas needed Kagiso Rabada to tilt the balance firmly in their direction.
Rabada steamrolled the middle-order, picking up three wickets in the space of four runs to leave Sri Lanka gasping. Galle’s rolled over grass rose up in applause as Rabada gained lift and swerve off the pitch. Lanka stood dazed despite Dimuth Karunaratne holding fort unfazed.
The mini-recovery by Karunaratne and Niroshan Dickwella was once again broken by the chinaman. Just before a rain break, Shamsi spun one past Dickwella with the batsman edging to the lone slip fielder. Amla was ecstatic, so was du Plessis. They went in watching the drops pelt down, hearts pounding with the massive turn Shamsi’s ball had generated.
Through all this, Maharaj remained steady. He wasn’t the same bowler who had England and Australia at his feet, but he wasn’t poor either. He kept his discipline and let Shamsi soak in his moment. But this was supposed to be South Africa’s moment to grab. They had the hosts on the mat at 176/8. Surely, du Plessis would kill them off with pace.
He didn’t. Shamsi and Maharaj kept bowling in tandem even as Karunaratne and Suranga Lakmal, reprieved off his third ball by South Africa’s hesitancy to review (off Shamsi again!), gained in confidence. The partnership gained momentum and force but the seamers were nowhere to be seen.
When du Plessis did turn to Rabada, the seamer sent back Lakmal to prize out his fourth scalp. The skipper should have persisted with him until the hosts were bowled out. He didn’t. He should have brought on Dale Steyn from the other end to see off Lakshan Sandakan. He didn’t. In the 28 overs from the fall of the eighth wicket to the final one, Rabada, their best bowler bowled just five overs. The spinners bowled 18 of them. The last wicket racked up a fifty run stand which was eventually ended by Shamsi, but it was all too late. The final two wickets had cost the Proteas 111 runs.
Even as the visitors celebrate their new-found ability to split the workload among pacers and spinners, they would do well to remember that the best way to close out an innings, irrespective of conditions, remain pace. What was a spectacular day for their spinners turned awry in the final session when the duo failed to turn it past the tail as the desperate seamers stood on the ropes sipping drinks.