South Africa suffered their first ever home Test series defeat to Sri Lanka this week. It was their first home series defeat to any Asian side. It was their first home series defeat to anyone who isn’t England or Australia. This is a major milestone in South African cricket; a major humiliation, even. Why did it happen?
Firstly, Sri Lanka performed to a level way above what anyone expected of them. They were dismantled at home by England last year before embarking on three monumentally tricky overseas assignments in the most alien of conditions to them: New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Throw in some internal strife, match fixing allegations running rife at home and battered confidence and you have a recipe for defeat.
Following the England series, there were at least signs of life in New Zealand, where Sri Lanka were only beaten 1-0 in the two Test series thanks to a rear-guard action for the ages from Angelo Mathews (120*) and Kusal Mendis (141*) in Wellington, where the pair batted out the fifth day to secure a memorable draw.
They were flattened in the second Test of that series before enduring two hefty defeats in Australia during which the draw in Wellington looked like a blip in form.
So, onto South Africa they went for the final part of this six-Test assignment looking bedraggled and beaten before a ball had even been bowled. Did anyone really give them a chance of winning this series against the best bowling attack in the game?
You’ll have read more meaningful insight into Kusal Perera’s 153* in Durban. I haven’t seen a better Test innings than that. Away from home, against the best in the business, on a spicy surface with a batting order that included Suranga Lakmal at eight (by comparison, England have Moeen Ali in that role!), he guided his team home. It was a truly staggering achievement.
That was miraculous enough. Sri Lanka then went on to tame the demons once more in Port Elizabeth – by now, it was South Africa looking dishevelled, their batting in tatters and their bowling, on the concluding third morning of the Test, looking impotent.
Yet South Africa have cultivated their home conditions to play into the hands of their bowlers. It’s a ploy which has spectacularly backfired, with humiliating consequences.
Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada, Duanne Olivier and Vernon Philander (replaced by Wiann Mulder for the second Test) with Keshav Maharaj as the spinner should have been more than enough to overwhelm Sri Lanka without needing a helping hand from wickets designed to assist their considerable talents to such a degree.
Whilst the South Africans did find wickets easy enough to come by, at least until the final morning of the series, so too did Sri Lanka.
And herein lies the problem for South Africa. In creating such extremely bowler friendly conditions, they are in fact negating the talents of their bowlers. Their pace attack doesn’t need such assistance. All South Africa have done is turn their Test matches into shoot outs by levelling the playing field and this sort of result has been coming.
In five home Tests this season (against Pakistan and Sri Lanka), South Africa have passed 300 with the bat once, when they amassed 431 at Cape Town in the second Test against Pakistan. Against India last year, a series they won 2-1, South Africa again only passed 300 once in the Test at Centurion.
The problem is, results have been good, even if the batting hasn’t. Dean Elgar, the opener, has commented that South Africa is the hardest place in the world to open and it’s hard to disagree. Pitches consistently offer help to the bowlers. Such assistance has been helping South Africa out, until now.
Last year they beat India 2-1 (where they only passed 300 once) and Australia 3-1, although that series featured one or two other activities which make it difficult to evaluate the actual cricket. They were then dismantled in Sri Lanka 2-0, which was no great surprise given the dry, dusty nature of the tracks in Sri Lanka. Then they beat Pakistan 3-0 at home and it was business as usual.
South Africa should have listened to Elgar. They simply don’t need to be producing such tracks and making life so hard for the batsmen. You’d back Steyn & Co. to get through any batting line-up on most surfaces. All they’ve done instead is create a lottery.
Sri Lanka had had first-hand experience of being on the wrong end of such circumstances when they lost 3-0 at home to England. Rather than retreat into their shells in alien conditions, England came out fighting, deploying an army of all-rounders and attacking at every opportunity. If they were going to lose, they were at least going to give themselves the best chance of victory in doing so.
Sri Lanka sensed their opportunity in South Africa and took it. They had outstanding performances at key moments across the squad and no one died wondering.
The problem from South Africa’s perspective, however, is that they gifted this opportunity to Sri Lanka. Will they finally heed the warning signs and learn the lessons from their own mistakes?
By Miles Reucroft