No matter how much we may want to promote the niceties of the Proteas cricket team, the wonderful blokes in it and how good they are generally, we cannot hide behind the fact that South Africa’s batting implosion against Sri Lanka in the second innings of the first Test was their lowest total in 254 matches since readmission.
The defeat, in the first of two Tests against Sri Lanka, was South Africa’s fifth-heaviest since 1992… and it was tough to watch.
The Proteas were playing against high-class spin at a venue renowned for being a Sri Lankan fortress. Galle has proved a happy hunting ground for Sri Lanka against many teams over a number of years. Good players have gone to Galle and have been beaten by spin bowling. There is certainly no shame in that, but it was clear to me that the basics of playing against spin were neglected by South Africa.
At the heart of the 278-run mauling in the first Test, patience, batting partnerships and strike-rotation were absent.
The Proteas’ thought process of playing more positively has some merit, but you cannot take undue risks when two new batsmen are at the crease. Coming down the wicket to a bowler turning the ball away from you is high-risk. At present, I’m seeing too many Proteas batsmen coming down the wicket, allowing the ball to bounce and then playing the shot.
As a spinner, there is nothing nicer than bowling to a batsman that continually comes down the wicket and looks to play the ball on the half-volley. All successful players of spin bowling endeavour to hit the ball on the full-toss rather than the half-volley.
It’s a lesson our batsmen must learn rather quickly. Furthermore, the men wielding the willow for South Africa were undone by trying to play shots that were outside their scope of reference. For instance, if you are not a prodigious sweeper of the ball, don’t suddenly decide to start sweeping when you are under pressure. There are a couple of inexperienced batsmen for South Africa in critical positions.
As good as Aiden Markram is, the young gun is callow when it comes to batting on the subcontinent. Meanwhile, Temba Bavuma, who has taken over AB de Villiers’ position in the middle of the order, is green in terms of batting on turning subcontinental pitches at number four.
The first Test against Sri Lanka was an unmitigated disaster, and Proteas batting coach Dale Benkenstein will need to come up with some sort of plan… and fast. As a mentor, he has to impart the lessons learned over the years. However, I’m questioning whether he has passed on those pearls of wisdom because I didn’t see it during the opening Test. Dale was a very good batsman, but he never played for South Africa on the subcontinent under extreme Test match pressure against quality spin bowling.
I reckon that Benkenstein would be a worried batting coach because he is overseeing a team that is outside its comfort zone. Based on the performance in Galle, it appears as if nothing that history has put on the table is being used. It’s as if it’s the first time the Proteas have toured the island nation. However, the truth of the matter is that South Africa has a tradition of playing against Sri Lanka away.
It started in 1993, and we took some valuable lessons from tours to the teardrop of India.
In life, there are certain lessons that you need to learn from the past, which makes it easier in the present and future. My hope was that they would get passed on through the years.
However, the current side doesn’t seem to have taken heed. Faf du Plessis has bemoaned the practice pitch conditions in Sri Lanka, but the Proteas should have tried to ensure that they warmed up back home on wickets which were similar to what they would face on the subcontinent. Intense training camps on turning pitches would have been ideal preparation
(Article first appeared in SA Cricket Magazine)