The Sri Lanka Test series will have far-reaching effects for the Proteas. It was a brutal lesson, and accountability for such poor batting displays will surely be expected from their loyal fans.
The narrative emanating from the coaching set-up, which is constantly reinforced by captain Faf du Plessis, is that ‘we have learned a lot and are moving the process forward’. I know that you are always learning in professional sport, but it was evident that lessons of the past on the subcontinent were never conveyed to the current team.
The Proteas only started to find their feet in the last innings of the second Test match. It was patent that the Proteas’ game plan on arrival was non-existent and they were simply going to ad-lib along the way. The strategy as far as the batting was concerned was clearly up the creek.
Meanwhile, the decision to only select one spinner for the second Test in Colombo was a debacle of serious proportions. The Proteas went to their default setting by opting for reverse-swinging fast bowlers rather than reading that the situation demanded spin bowlers on a turning wicket. What was the thinking behind the selections? Why would Tabraiz Shamsi race back to Sri Lanka, having departed after the first Test for family reasons, if he wasn’t going to be called upon in the second Test?
The Proteas also carried another spinner in the form of uncapped Shaun von Berg, who must have picked up serious splinters sitting around as a net bowler. When is the Proteas’ selection panel going to move away from trying to defy the logic of the match situation? Opting for only one spinner was a very poor cricketing decision. There is inexperience within the ranks of the selection panel and that played out for all to see.
Opting for only one spinner was a very poor cricketing decision. There is inexperience within the ranks of the selection panel and that played out for all to see.
However, be that as it may, there is also inexperience within the management team. Ottis Gibson is learning on the job and, as an ex-fast bowler, he fell into the trap of our default setting. On flat pitches, the world has moved past worrying about reverse swing at around 130km/h. Going for reverse swing is high-risk on the subcontinent because if the ball gets damp, scuffs up on the wrong side or a batsman gets set, it’s not as effective as spin bowling.
Throughout the two-Test series, the one aspect that truly set Sri Lanka apart from South Africa was their ability to apply consistent pressure on the batsmen. They profited from accurate bowling and having men around the bat, which ensured the visitors couldn’t rotate the strike. Those tactics don’t have the same effect when you employ fast bowlers on the subcontinent.
In terms of South Africa’s batting, they didn’t understand the patience that is demanded when wielding the willow in Asia. It’s much easier once you are in at the crease – as evidenced by Theunis de Bruyn’s maiden Test century – but you have to trust the process. South Africa’s batsmen should have arrived on the subcontinent with the mindset of trusting their defence, batting for long periods of time and withstanding a host of pressure.
Looking at it from a bowler’s point of view, when you bowl to batsmen who try to score quickly, and you consistently apply the right pressure, it’s only a matter of time before they play a shot outside of their scope of reference. Mental resilience at the crease is something that needs to be understood when touring the subcontinent. It was as clear as day that that component of batting was not evident.
South Africa’s batmen should have arrived on the subcontinent with the mindset of trusting their defence, batting for long periods of time and withstanding a host of pressure.
It was probably discussed but critically, it was not understood. It beggars belief, and borders on arrogance, that the Proteas only had one two-day warm-up match prior to the first Test. Going forward, if the Proteas want to start winning series on the subcontinent, they have to be more diligent and intense when it comes to preparation.
The evidence tells me the Proteas were under-prepared when they reached Sri Lanka. They also failed to understand the depth of the mental work that was required and the amount of pressure they would be put under.
If you wing it on the subcontinent, you will be caught out.
(Article first appeared in SA Cricket Magazine)