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“A team may feel more comfortable backing their specialist bowlers irrespective of the conditions, but how fruitful would that be in terms of results”?

South Africa suffered an agonizing defeat in the two-match Test series against Sri Lanka; they were clean swept by the home side and had a tough time in the sub-continent. Spinners were the talk of the town throughout the series and inflicted most of the damage. South Africa put up a fight in the second game, but ended up on the losing side as they had a mountain to climb in the fourth innings. Here, let’s talk about their strategy. They stuck with their tactic of playing three specialist seamers and two spinners despite the conditions being dusty and favourable to spinners in the first Test.

Surprisingly, South Africa fielded just a solitary spinner in the crucial second encounter and went with an extra batsman when the onus of making a comeback was on them. The fact that they played three seamers on a surface that had enough help for the spinners is baffling.

Let’s take a look at what their coach Ottis Gibson said about this. Prior to the start of the Test series, Gibson spoke about their bowling strategy and plans of playing three seamers. He was quoted in a report from ESPNCricinfo saying, “Our fast bowling has been the bedrock of our success for a long time, and I’m pretty sure we’ll continue with three fast bowlers. Vernon and Dale have played here before, but it’s new for Lungi and for Rabada. It’s good for them to see what it’s going to be like when the Test match starts. It’s not going to be a place like Jo’burg where they see the ball flying through to the keeper. Sometimes it might bounce twice before it gets to the keeper. But then that’s when your strong character comes in, and you have to suck it up, run in, keep trying to hit the deck and be effective.”

“The captain might use you in short spells so you can run in and go as hard as you can in those four overs, then go off to have a break and come back. The captain, I imagine, will do what he can to keep everybody fresh,” Gibson added.

Gibson certainly had a point to make, and did go with the combination of three seamers and two spinners in the first test. But South African combination of three seamers and a solitary spinner for the second Test defied logic. The question is, should a team back their best bowlers across conditions or alter as per conditions? There is no definite answer to this question, but it certainly makes more sense to play players who are more suitable to the conditions. After all, the ‘horses for courses’ strategy has worked wonders for sides across the globe.

A team may feel more comfortable backing their specialist bowlers irrespective of the conditions, but how fruitful would that be in terms of results? Let’s take a look at both the Test matches with some numbers.

In the Galle Test, a total of 25 wickets fell to spin. The numbers were clear evidence to the fact that the conditions were spin-friendly and unlikely to change. Although South Africa did play two spinners, but it was the failure of their batting that cost dearly. The most sensible thing to do going into the second Test would have been replacing a seamer with a batsman, but it wasn’t to be. South Africa roped in a batsman at the cost of Tabraiz Shamsi, who had four wickets in his basket from the first game.

What happened next? Out of the 35 wickets fallen in the second game, spinners accounted for 32 while pacers had just two along with a run-out. The numbers are staggering and the fact that Sri Lanka played just one seamer while South Africa had three is astonishing. In fact, Lakmal didn’t bowl in the first innings as Sri Lanka banked heavily on their spinners to bail them out, which they eventually did. All 20 South African wickets were chipped by Sri Lankan spinners.

Maharaj wreaked havoc with the ball in the first innings, chipping nine wickets. One wouldn’t be wrong in saying that the damage would have been deeper had Maharaj got some assistance from the other end. A bowler like Shamsi would have exploited the conditions and helped his side bundle Sri Lanka at the earliest. Sri Lanka was always going to dish out spin-friendly conditions; South Africa would have stood a good chance had they played two specialist spinners in the second Test as well, where their batsmen did a relatively good job.

Again, should a team back their best bowlers or field players as per conditions is a debatable question! There is no definite answer to this, but most logical would suggest having players suiting the conditions and the result between South Africa-Sri Lanka test series corroborates the belief. For instance, India did dominate the home Test season riding on their spinners, but they can’t afford to do the same in their upcoming tour to England. Although spin was their primary weapon in the home test season, but in England, seamers will play a crucial role.

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