248, 184, 109, 214, 79, 185, 121, 143, 126 and 73
Thus read South Africa’s scores in the sub-continent since the beginning of 2015. A strong batting line-up which has scaled massive runs in other parts of the World, South Africa have had their fair share of issues against spin in the sub-continent. A drubbing in India in 2015 saw them pile up some of their lowest totals since readmission but here at Galle, they were expected to fare better, despite it being their first Test match since the retirement of AB de Villiers.
Sri Lanka, perhaps well aware of Proteas’ fallacies against spin, had a 3:1 spin:pace ratio and each of the spinners played their roles to perfection. Stunningly, it was Dilruwan Perera who stood tall and sliced through the Proteas line-up with a match haul of ten wickets, the first in his career.
South Africa’s contrasting approaches – both flawed – in the two innings’ were there for all to see. In the first innings, they seemed all too aware of the threat Lankan spinners could pose and went into their shells even before a ball had been bowled.
With a few overs remaining late on day one to negotiate, South Africa lose their top scorer in the last two series’ – Aiden Markram. It perhaps was the final warning for them to switch their approach. Nothing changed on day two, though. With a shortened batting line-up, Proteas looked to play out the spinners but the merciless Lankan tweakers kept coming at them.
Hashim Amla and Temba Bavuma looked to attack them with contrasting styles – one went down the track and the other kept sweeping – but premeditation against spin in the sub-continent is suicidal and the visitors learned it all too quickly. Amla stepped out unaware of the length Perera was bowling and inside edged to the short leg fielder while Bavuma, least aware of the turn Sandakan could generate, swept unconvincingly, to be bowled off an inside edge.
Faf du Plessis, on his birthday, and Vernon Philander resisted. They grit it out, getting behind the line of the delivery with conviction. Perhaps the only time South Africa seemed to be in the game when batting was during the blossoming of this partnership. Yet, one gave way to another and before you knew it, the Proteas were bowled out for 126.
When they came out to bat another time, chasing a mammoth score, the approach changed. It was perhaps a surprise that Proteas chose to attack the spinners who had dominated them. Their blockathons are pretty famous in this part of the World but without de Villiers, it wasn’t the same.
de Villiers is their highest run-getter in the Asian sub-continent since 2015, scoring 258 in four matches at 36.85. That none of the other batsmen average over 30 tells a tale. Unsurprisingly, the Philander – du Plessis stand of 64 in the first innings was their fourth highest partnership in the sub-continent in the last three years! They have zero hundred-plus partnerships in this time frame in this part of the World!
How they chose to attack their way out with a fragile top order and an out of form no.6 remains debatable. However, it seemed an escape route for their clueless batsmen. It ended in their worst total in Tests since readmission – 73.
“It’s just a case of our batters somehow trying to put pressure back on the quality of spin bowling that Sri Lanka have,” du Plessis said after the game. “There’s two ways of looking at it. You could sit it out and try and bat for as long as possible, but you also need to put pressure on the opposition. There were one or two more expansive shots than we would normally play, but the thinking behind the batting was to try and put some pressure back on the bowling, because they don’t give you anything. That’s the quality the spinners have over here. If you sit there the whole day you’re also not going to score runs. There’s an element of what is a medium risk, compared to a high-risk shot, especially on the wickets that we’re playing on, with the ball stopping a little bit more than we’re used to. It is lessons that we can learn. But we weren’t good enough in this game, and Sri Lanka showed us why they were better.”
In hindsight, it was a decent analysis but with the kind of technique their batsmen have, do they stand a chance cometh, Colombo, four days later? Highly unlikely. What they miss is the presence of an intimidating, counter-attacking batsman in de Villiers. They could try cover up with additional force in batting but Heinrich Klaasen will have a harsh introduction to Test cricket if that were the case. Do they have other options, though? Nope.