A good if not a great win

2014-07-26 00:00

BY any measure, the victory of South Africa in the first Test against Sri Lanka was a very good one in nearly all respects. Most importantly, it gave Hashim Amla the perfect start to his Test match captaincy.

He appeared calm and thoughtful throughout the game. He made the sort of brave declaration that is usually done only by experienced Test captains with plenty of wins banked in the cupboard. He certainly had history on his side when he left the opposition plenty of time to make nearly 400 runs on a worn pitch, but it takes some courage and abundant confidence in your attack to do so on your captaincy debut.

As I wrote last week, I would prefer to see Amla bat at number three as this is arguably the most important position in the batting order, as well as the one most suited to his considerable talents. It is also important for a captain to lead by example as Graeme Smith did so well. Nothing would send a clearer message to his troops than the sight of Amla striding to the crease at the fall of the first wicket and making big scores.

What this win did for the Proteas was to steer further into the background the question as to how the team would cope without Jacques Kallis. The Sri Lankans do not have the most potent attack in world cricket and they were sorely hampered by an injury to Eranga that left them short of a bowler, but for all that, there were some encouraging performances from South Africa’s new generation of batsmen, as well as another stellar display from De Villiers.

The batsmen embraced the responsibilities thrust upon them in this the first Test match of the post Kallis and Smith era. Certainly more testing times lie ahead, but the confidence they will all have gained at Galle will give them the assurance that their good days will outnumber the bad ones.

I think that the team’s management need to have a strong word with Alviro Peterson, who continues to squander good starts with profligate abandon. The difference between making 30 odd runs and a big hundred lies only in desire and application, which should be the essential elements of any Test opener’s temperament.

Once again, Dale Steyn was marvellous. Now that he is free from a couple of niggling injuries, he is back to his best and it showed in a match-winning performance in which he took nine wickets for fewer than 100 runs. Whenever he bowls like this, we marvel at his ability and fire, but worry if his replacement is in sight. As long as he is in this form and gets reasonable assistance from the other bowlers, these Proteas will keep on winning Test matches.

At Galle, the support came mainly from Morné Morkel, who had his best Test match for some while. If Morkel carries on bowling with this intelligence and pace it is only a matter of time before he starts winning Tests for his country.

The disappointment of the first Test was the bowling of both Tahir and Philander. Tahir had the pitch of his dreams to bowl on, but took just one wicket and that with a full toss unaccountably missed by Sri Lankan captain Angelo Mathews. That is not good enough and one imagines that Dane Piedt will not have to wait much longer for his chance.

These days, the great Philander is looking more like the naked emperor. He seems down on pace, but his recent figures may be telling the story that he needs helpful pitches on which to work his magic. With lively Test pitches becoming less common, it may be pertinent to ask if Philander should be an automatic selection. His bowling is currently experiencing a hopefully brief period of diminishing returns, thus leaving greater responsibility on the shoulders of Steyn and Morkel.

Philander failed to take a wicket in the first Test and to add to his frustration he was found guilty of ball tampering. That he took a blow for the team in this unfortunate matter should not be doubted. It is not credible that he would have embarked on an illegal course of action of his own accord. It also raises the question of just how long this practice has been going on within the Protea squad?

It was not so long ago that Faf du Plessis was also found guilty of altering the condition of the ball, for which offence he served a brief ban from international cricket. Only those within the team will know if this practice has become endemic, but the management need to stamp it out forthwith. The “I told you sos” are blooming in Australia where the sceptics have long thought that Steyn’s bowling that set up last summer’s win against the Aussies in Port Elizabeth was too good to be purely skilful.

Many, including myself, may think that ball tampering should be allowed, but as long as it is illegal, it is foolish to persist in the practice. The chances of getting caught are high with 16 cameras following the ball at international grounds. The Proteas do not want to be branded as cheats or play a few Tests without a key player.

The team then moved to Colombo where the pitch is more than friendly to batsmen. It was odd that the same team was chosen for the second Test. De Kock probably did enough to retain his place as a wicketkeeper batsman, considering that a draw in this game will return the Proteas to the top of the Test rankings. The selection of Tahir, however, made no sense. After a great start by Steyn, Amla lost control of the innings with the early introduction of Tahir before his champion had time to bowl a second spell. This was inexperienced captaincy on the back of a poor selection.

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