Cape Town – It’s a dangerous, developing trend: the fallibility of the current, broad crop of Proteas cricketers against the wilier of spin bowlers.
Even with only half the Test mini-series in Sri Lanka completed – a frankly shameful first-match hiding from the much lower-ranked outfit in two-and-a-bit days in Galle -- there is a case for saying South Africa have now suffered at least three notable, hideous experiences at the hands of Subcontinental spinners over the past three years.
Several current SA players are common denominators through the period, which really began when India routed the tourists 3-0 in a four-Test series in late 2015, a clean sweep possibly only staved off because so much of the tamely drawn Bangalore Test was lost to the elements.
Admittedly there was some controversy to that series humiliation, as many of the pitches presented then were rank, lotto-like crumblers virtually from the outset and even some of India’s famed stroke-players hardly filled their boots with runs.
But while you have to be careful not to link too earnestly events in Test and one-day international cricket, renewed, sustained Proteas angst against slow bowling took root again – and educatively on our own, less prodigiously turning tracks – during the ODI portion of India’s return visit to these parts last summer.
Though well enough beaten a little earlier on more seam-friendly pitches in the Tests, the Indians blitzed South Africa 5-1 in the ODIs, the key feature being how their cunning, unorthodox spinners Kuldeep Yadav (17 wickets at 13.88) and Yuzvendra Chahal (16 at 16.37) constantly bamboozled the home batsmen – several of them Test-crossover stars.
Now the Proteas are deep in the mire against this form of bowling all over again, the mastery achieved by off-spinner Dilruwan Perera (match figures 10/78) and 40-year-old left-armer Rangana Herath (5/77) at Galle ensuring probably their most feeble showing yet, from a pure resistance point of view, in an Asia-hosted Test match.
Commentator and former Sri Lanka international Russel Arnold most starkly summed up South Africa’s ignominy: “199 for 20”, he chortlingly reminded of the visitors’ match tally, hardly having to reach for any further salt to sprinkle on the wound.
It included, of course, the abject second-innings 73, managed in only 28.5 overs, and amounting to SA’s lowest completed post-isolation knock.
In what many observers were entitled to believe was some sort of nadir at the time, the Proteas nevertheless actually made more runs in each of the three Tests they were beaten in on that ill-fated 2015 Indian tour: 184 and 109 in Mohali, 79 and 185 at Nagpur, and 121 and 143 in Delhi.
Instead record new lows have been posted, and the only “blessing” was that Faf du Plessis and company effectively earned themselves a bit of extra time out of competition to prepare for the required, quite dramatic turnaround if they are to end up sharing the series by winning at the Colombo SSC ground from Friday onward.
Few could quibble with the sage words of former SA captain and SuperSport commentator Kepler Wessels as the first Test sped toward its inevitable conclusion.
He said the Galle pitch was “not a radical turning surface like Mohali” -- and Du Plessis largely confessed as much himself in his post-match interviews.
Wessels added: “South Africa needed to make the Sri Lankan bowlers work much, much harder for their wickets.
“On these Subcontinent surfaces you have to be able to bat time … if you can’t bat time you won’t get runs. They’ve got about five days now to work hard on their strategies and technique.”
Another former national skipper, Shaun Pollock, would have struck a chord with many more veteran monitors of Test tours when he questioned the spartan preparation time afforded the Proteas players, visiting steamy Sri Lanka straight out of our domestic mid-winter.
“If their lives depended on it, would they have spent so little time (a short, solitary practice match) in the country in the lead-up?”
Particularly disappointing about the latest house-of-cards collapse by SA against spin is that, for a long period up to the 2015 disaster in India, the Proteas had developed a handy little line in either winning or splitting various series in Asia – and by extension showing the necessary application, fortitude and gumption against slow bowling.
Between 2007 and that 2015 bump back to earth, they had not lost in eight series there.
But with AB de Villiers so expensively ripped from their plans now, only the noticeably fading force who is Hashim Amla really remains from the generation who showed such prior pluckiness in foreign conditions.
While the Proteas should be sharper in overall terms for the second Test, after hitting Galle so “cold”, it must be a concern that several of the present batsmen run the risk of only becoming increasingly spooked by their pretty regular, low-return experiences against quality spinners …
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