Cape Town – Ah, remember the days of Mickey Arthur and his “brave cricket”?
As it happened: Sri Lanka v South Africa - Day 2
A handful of the current crop of South African Test cricketers will: but on Friday people could have been forgiven if they suspected the principle – which had its pros and cons at the time -- had most firmly been consigned to the annals of history.
Certainly it is difficult to remember when last the Proteas may have negotiated the first 52 overs of their first innings without yet quite reaching the three-figure mark.
So “survival cricket” was very much the guiding ethic for them on day two of the decisive second Test against Sri Lanka in Colombo, as they crawled to 98 for three in reply to the hosts’ beefy but not wholly heartbreaking 421.
If that is the tempo the tourists plan to employ for the remainder of their opening turn at the crease, with the pitch not yet turning square – that hallmark may well be in the post, mind – then you wonder how they will go about their second, when the need to hang onto their series lead will only become more acute, plus more treacherous.
There is plenty of cricket yet to be played, and it would be ridiculously premature for any glass-half-empty types to suggest the Proteas may well be goners in this game. (I wouldn’t yet completely discount a South African win.)
But lots of cricket also means lots of time: three full days, to be precise, and that is currently more of a comforting ally to the grimly-motivated ‘Lankans, you suspect, than it is to Hashim Amla’s men.
At least the captain himself is leading the stone-walling mission with devotion at this point, for an unbeaten 46 at a strike rate of 34, which is well down on his career rate of 52 in 134 prior turns at the Test crease, demonstrating the unexpectedly ultra-conservative nature of the whole SA innings thus far.
In defence of the strategy, let’s not forget the deflating effect, soon after being in the field under hot conditions for the 121.4 overs of the Sri Lankan first dig, of seeing opener Alviro Petersen, who is now really flirting with the axe, pat back a tame return catch to Rangana Herath with the SA total on a flimsy three.
Just as ominously, it had taken just 11 balls for the home team to get their frontline spinner into the wickets column – Herath had bowled the second over – whereas earlier the Proteas’ again infuriatingly erratic (but sometimes luckless, too) equivalent Imran Tahir had finally struck for the first time in the 117th over of the rival knock.
So Petersen’s departure, and not long after it the unravelling of Dean Elgar as well, did mean it was backs-to-the-wall stuff almost immediately.
But surely when South Africa resume on Saturday, they will do so with slightly greater run-rate intent?
It doesn’t necessarily mean they must suddenly go hell for leather, but it is also impossible to escape the fear that if they don’t crank it up a bit, they are only digging a hole for their own eventual coffin at the Sinhalese Sports Club.
So far the Sri Lankans have laid siege to their opponents with spin: a veritable liquorice all-sorts of a left-armer, an offie, a part-time leggie and one (in Ajantha Mendis) who might flick it out either way as he fancies.
That must mean a significant trial in concentration for the batsmen, given the obvious fact that there is so little time for a mental breather between deliveries, not to mention – particularly with bold stroke-play at a bare minimum – a crowd of predators around the bat going “oooh” and “ayaaah” as if to suggest every ball is a grenade without its pin attached.
It would be no bad thing if these vultures were dispersed a bit more, and if the Amla-AB de Villiers senior alliance at the crease survives the first half an hour or so on Saturday, perhaps there will be some licence for their more natural, dominating instincts to gradually enter the equation.
First objective for the Proteas is to safely get to the initial, follow on-avoidance target of 222, which ought to still be well enough within their capability.
But if things do happen to go pear-shaped on that front, there may be certain silver linings: this seems like becoming a pitch where batting third would be significantly better than fourth, don’t you think?
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