The crows in Sri Lanka are ubiquitous. The cynical suggest this is because of the bodies piled up during the 30-year civil war between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which ended when former president (now disputed prime minister) Mahinda Rajapaksa crushed the guerrilla army in 2009. The United Nations estimated that over 40 000 civilians were killed in that final push during which the military shelled no-fire zones and raped and murdered innocents.
On day two of the second and final Test between Sri Lanka and South Africa at the Sinhalese Sports Club Ground in Colombo in July this year, the crows gathered at third man with a similar kind of foreboding you’d find in Van Gogh’s Wheatfield. The visitors were struggling at 15/3.
Sri Lanka posted 338 in their first innings and, now, with South Africa in trouble, the carrion-feeders appeared ready to pick at the bones of their faltering batting line-up.
Sri Lanka had already won the first Test in Galle by 278 runs, with the Proteas mustering pitiful scores of 126 and 73 in the rout. The visitors would collapse again in Colombo. South Africa’s first innings score of 124 ensured that when openers Dean Elgar and Aiden Markram walked on to the pitch for their second innings, in search of 490 runs for victory, Sri Lankan opener Dimuth Karunaratne had scored more runs than all the visiting batsmen combined in the series.
Throughout that series, South Africa’s batting could only be described as conservative, neurotic and in unwavering adherence to a preconceived plan with seemingly scant smart. They swept with a blind diligence that left many going out to the top-edged straighter ball, rather than those that turned. They defended with the jitteriness of a Colombo “beach boy”, unsure of where he’d find his next fix.
As such, every delivery from the Sri Lankan bowlers carried the morbid suspense of death sentences for South African batsmen, who were seemingly haunted by the Sri Lankan government’s proposal to hang drug dealers in an attempt to curb the island’s heroin scourge.
While South Africa batted on a failed prayer during their two-match series in Sri Lanka earlier this year, England managed to wrap up a 3-0 Test series whitewash in Colombo in late November. Like the colonial marauders of the recent past, the English ransacked the island’s temples, shrines and other holy sites for whatever gold they could carry with them.
England skipper Joe Root called for conscious aggression throughout the series. He batted accordingly, with vicious scores that included 124 at Pallekele. The other English batsmen, from Jos Buttler to Jonny Bairstow, responded to their captain’s call. Likewise, the English bowlers, particularly Adil Rashid, did their bit.
Rashid’s 5/49 in the first innings in Colombo broke the burgeoning partnership between Karunaratne and Dhananjaya de Silva, which had taken Sri Lanka to a dominant 173/1. Claiming both wickets, Rashid triggered a collapse so destructively complete, some would feel justified in trawling for internet reports of an earthquake somewhere on the island.
In contrast, it was only by the second innings of the final Test in Colombo that the Proteas finally started clearing away the self-inflicted cobwebs spun inside their heads about the spin in Sri Lanka. Theunis De Bruyn scored a century (an uneven, sometimes scratchy, but ultimately doughty 101 off 232 balls) and Temba Bavuma’s thoughtfully aggressive 63 off 98 balls suggested the visitors were finally acclimatising to the demands of the conditions they faced.
By then, of course, it was way too late. The series was already lost. South Africa would go on to triumph in the one-day series but, for cricket lovers, Test supremacy remains the ultimate goal.
The Proteas’ tour of Sri Lanka in July and August was rationalised by Cricket South Africa (CSA) and the team leadership as an important learning exercise. Yet, some of their obvious mistakes and miscalculations appeared amateurish. Elgar’s admitting in a press conference that the tour was a “learning curve for all our coaches” suggested the Proteas think-tank hadn’t done enough preparation and approached the Test series with a degree of hubris.
Spin twists minds
It was also evident that the “idea of spin” – of the googly, the doosra, the leg-cutter and the carrom ball – had already inserted its spectral presence in the South Africans’ minds. The batsmen were noticeably unsettled, psychologically, even before a ball was faced. This against a team which, as England proved with some hard-nosed cricket, is prone to mental disintegration and errors (bowling wicket-taking no-balls, reviewing umpire calls amateurishly and batting collapses) when they feel the pressure.
That South Africa were not mentally prepared leading into the Test series was an indictment on the team’s management. The team’s traditional arrogance was evident in the inclusion of three seamers and just one specialist spinner in the two Tests.
In conditions that assisted the emergence of the most unlikely of statistics for a country famed for its fast bowlers, spinner Keshav Maharaj emerged with the best all-time figures for a South African bowler in a Test match (9/129). The inclusion of another spinner in spin-friendly conditions would have probably helped blood another player who would, in future, have allowed for more variety in South Africa’s attacking range.
Rather, and quite disappointingly so, part-time spinner Markram was coming on at first change to replace Kagiso Rabada. In contrast, England played with three spinners all series, with Root as a fourth option.
As chance would have it, Root won all three tosses in the series, while South African captain Faf Du Plessis lost both. Given the choice to bat first in Tests in Sri Lanka might have gone a long way in mentally preparing the South African batsmen to build innings.
Another part of the problem was that South Africa came into the Test series relatively cold, having played just one warm-up match in which they faced seamers instead of Sri Lanka’s notable spinners. In contrast, England played their way into Sri Lanka’s testing conditions, having been on the island since October, with their ODI and T20 matches building up to the Test series.
England are able to negotiate such a schedule because of the television money they bring, as well as the travelling support and the heft of their currency. These fill the coffers of Sri Lanka Cricket and the pockets of tuk-tuk drivers, and ensure that merchandise sellers can double the price of their clobber.
Arrogance but no clout
South Africa has no such economic weight or favour within the International Cricket Council’s where its power brokers remain pro- India, England and Australia. The Proteas only have the prestige of their status as a cricketing nation to parley with — but even that appears inadequately leveraged.
There seems to be a laissez-faire approach creeping into what tours CSA organise and what the coaching unit prepare. How else can we explain the Proteas travelling all the way to Australia to play just three ODIs?
Arrogance has been a traditional characteristic of South African cricket and introspection by those who run the sport in the country is desperately needed to ensure future success. In a sense, the sport’s leadership in South Africa is living out the character Gamini Diyasena’s observation in Michael Ondaatje’s novel Anil’s Ghost, which is set in Sri Lanka. The doctor, left disillusioned by war, remembered a note scrawled by a colleague into one of the books they all shared: “Jung was absolutely right about one thing. We are occupied by gods. The mistake is to identify with the god occupying you.”
“Whatever this meant,” Gamini thought, “it seemed a thoughtful warning, and they let the remark seep in. They all knew it was about the sense of self-worth that, during those days, in that place, had overcome them.”