Whisper it. Once the breath has been regained. The Proteas needed that reality-defying defeat at Kingsmead in the first Test of the two-match series against Sri Lanka.
The South Africans needed Kusal Perera to spank one of the world’s most fearsome bowling attacks around the ground in a gutsy, sometimes precarious, often attacking, 153 not out in the fourth innings as they successfully chased down 304.
Conceding those 78 runs – one run short of Sri Lanka’s highest final-wicket stand in Test history – in the death throes of a Test match was as mandatory for South Africa as empty stands are to Durban. As was the Proteas losing five wickets for a mere eight runs in their second innings. It gave Sri Lanka, a dangerous team when they dream big, the gap they needed to institute quick thinking hands and feet to achieve one of Test cricket’s greatest backs-against-the-wall victories – a display of innovation South Africa would do well to heed.
Like Icarus watching the first of his feathers drift away, rivulets of melting wax running down his arms, the Proteas had not paid attention to the hubris of their narrow, results-based approach to a summer of superiority; of their swaggering bowling violence and intimidation on spicy pitches that sometimes exhibited uneven bounce on the first days of Test matches, which eventually left Pakistan crushed and crumpled 3-0.
The Proteas have flown too close to the sun this summer.
South Africa’s emphasis on a fast-bowling quartet, on pitches that are manufactured to their success, has been to the long-term detriment of the Test side’s all-round development. Promising spinners like Keshav Maharaj have not developed game-time nous and the confidence to adapt to a variety of conditions and match circumstances. They haven’t blooded more players who can add variety to the attack or firm up a brittle top order, and the team as a whole. The team hasn’t been given the space to break from historical cricketing conformity and start thinking outside the box to find match-day solutions.
The bouncers not getting the required results against the tail? No worries, forget about making Perera play, just keep it at the throat – sooner or later we’ll mug them … Until we’ve run out of runs to defend and the Test is lost, that is.
‘I wanted to hit two or three sixes off Steyn’
We want to get to No.1 in the world? Forget about pitches that allow for an equitable contest between bat and ball so as to really test our fast bowlers and allow for their holistic development. Spice those pitches with jamāl kote, rather, and watch the opposition batsmen run back to the shed like diarrhetic cheetahs.
But even those approaches soon wilt against determined opposition. “When I was batting with the tail, I knew we couldn’t win this match by just scoring singles. I was the last proper batsman left. When the time felt right for me, I took my chances. I tried to hit to the close boundary. I had really wanted to hit two or three sixes off [Dale] Steyn as we were getting close. Thankfully, I was able to do that. I think my decision-making was really good,” Perera said of his batting at the end, after having endured being hit on the hand and surviving spells of venomous bowling.
“In these couple of matches, I think I’ve copped six or seven blows to the head. In these tracks, if you’re not willing to wear balls on the body, you might as well not be batting. I don’t know how many times I got hit – honestly, I’ve lost count. But you can’t think about those things while you are batting.
“In Sri Lanka, the fastest you get is 130kph to 140kph. Here you get balls that are 150kph. When you come to a country like this, if someone tells you you can bat without getting hit, that’s a lie. We have to be smart about it. That happened to me. That’s what cricket is about,” he said, commenting on the bouncers he faced from the South African artillery.
Adapting to different conditions
One would hope that defeats such as the one-wicket loss against Sri Lanka trigger the type of introspection that leads to a reform of ideas and approaches, to ensure that the South African Test side is successful playing under a variety of conditions both home and away. To win the World Test Series, which will be inaugurated after the World Cup in England later this year, the Proteas have to win away from home, in places like India. And to do so requires developing their adaptability, which should start at home.
But captain Faf du Plessis’s post-match comments suggest this kind of long-term thinking and tinkering will remain subservient to the short-term goal of winning at all costs at home.
Noting the slowness of the Kingsmead pitch, Du Plessis pointed to the wins over Pakistan at Centurion, Newlands and The Wanderers, saying these were “all the right places to play subcontinental teams”. This is the kind of mindset that will limit, rather than develop, the emerging generation of young Test cricketers.
He went on to contradict himself, though, by acknowledging that “we still have to be a team that is adaptable”. But adaptability does not come from fast-track bullying one’s way to victory. Rather, it stems from acknowledging the perceived shortcomings in a team and working to strengthen them, by grinding away to achieve consistent levels of performance in conditions that are not tailored to one’s strengths.
For this to happen, the Proteas have to move towards a kind of self-expression intertwined with that of a country finding a new voice, something Hashim Amla described to me in a 2015 interview as “going a little bit out the box”.
More mavericks, less automen
This requires bravery, imagination and a fear of losing. It also requires moving away from the rigid conformity entrenched in the school and club structures that feed provincial and national teams. The Test side need more mavericks and less automen – not necessarily a change in personnel, but a change in philosophy.
Sri Lanka have long provided a riposte to conformity, embracing the kind of unorthodoxy that yielded one of the greatest Test bowlers of all time, Muttiah Muralitharan, and a breathtaking World Cup victory in 1996.
There are suggestions that Sri Lanka are moving away from embracing the maverick in favour of short-term orthodoxy based on results and politicking. But there was enough evidence among the younger and newer members in the team that played in Durban to confirm their rejuvenatory impact.
Left-arm fast bowler Vishwa Fernando broke through South Africa’s top order in the first innings and, together with left-arm spinner Lasith Embuldeniya, cleaned up the tailenders in the second. Right-arm medium fast bowler Kasun Rajitha and Fernando also bore balls to the head and body in adding a vital 32 runs in the first innings, ninth-wicket partnership.
Lateral thinking, and not just sharply rising balls, will ensure that South Africa compete for the World Test Series. The Proteas have the players and management to succeed, but the question of whether or not they have the mental ability to think a “bit outside the box” can only be answered by bravery and imagination.