Trying to pick through the pieces of the Proteas’ broken Test puzzle is no easy feat. At the core of the problem appears to be a missing edge against the supposedly weakest of the sub-continent sides that they have faced in the past 18 months.
On paper, the Sri Lanka squad that landed in South Africa – fresh from a chastening experience in Australia – looked ready to be put to the sword. Their coach was no longer part of the selection committee. Their first-choice captain was back in Colombo and their build-up had been riddled with body blows by Australia.
The simple diagnosis is that South Africa were the villains in a Rocky Balboa narrative. Just there, in Durban, they had the hero on the ropes, seemingly on the verge of collapse. All it needed was one swift blow to the head and any unspent resistance would crumble. Instead, the Balboa of the piece shook off the heavy blows and found a way to counter.
As each of Kusal Perera’s uppercuts found the flesh, he suddenly staggered the Proteas and sniffed blood. When Faf du Plessis attempted a run-out at the unguarded non-striker’s end, resulting in five runs, the South African gum guard was bloodied and the Sri Lankan punches had started to take effect.
The villain became the victim and Sri Lanka were now delivering crisp blows, staggering a team that had looked invincible just an hour earlier. Sensing their moment to flip the script, Sri Lanka delivered the knockout blow emphatically and the first flick received its happy ending.
‘Rocky II’ in PE
By the time they went down to Port Elizabeth for Rocky II, South Africa were a shadow of themselves, a team suddenly doubting their feet. They had openings, but instead of throwing combinations, they held back.
Defeat, especially that of an unexpected nature, does strange things to people. It asks questions of character and commitment, and demands a response. It was curious that South Africa couldn’t quite rouse themselves and find the victory they needed to at least share the series.
The Proteas, with designs on climbing to the summit of the Test rankings once more, cannot be so meek in surrender as they were. Du Plessis labelled some of their dismissals as “soft”.
That much is true and will be a point of concern. Test cricket is a ruthless neighbourhood, where weakness is preyed upon. Ruthlessly so, too. India, already with a blueprint of taking on South Africa on home soil, will be licking their lips at this latest capitulation.
To Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka? They had plenty of their own problems, rooted chiefly in inexperience, unfamiliarity with South African conditions and a shortage of genuine star quality. That was the general assessment of the touring party. They would be plucky, feisty even, but they surely didn’t have the lasting legs to really take South Africa all the way.
Suranga Lakmal was the closest they had in that sense, owing to his prowess with the new ball and his slippery speed. The others, though, were largely unknown. It was a shocking admission that there was little or no knowledge of the likes of Vishwa Fernando, for example.
The left-arm operator introduced himself on the first morning of the series in some style and the Proteas have since afforded him a level of respect verging on the well-acquainted Lakmal. Though the Proteas would never dare admit it, there was a sense of “we’ll be fine” about the approach to the series.
If there truly was, then the 2-0 reverse was a terrific wake-up call. It was a timely reminder that the game is full of speedways and speed bumps, and no stone can be left unturned in the pursuit of perfection.
Top six collapse
That may sound like a statement steeped in misplaced grandiosity but, to be No.1 in the world, a Test side needs to be as close to perfect as humanly possible. Good attack, quality spin option(s), an experienced leader and a flood of runs from the men paid chiefly to make them.
South Africa ticked some of those boxes against Sri Lanka, but they left some key ones blank. Their top six, the delightfully violent Quinton de Kock and the determined Du Plessis aside, left a lot of meat on the bone. They simply didn’t display an appetite for longevity, just when that was exactly what the situation required.
There must be a few Proteas batsmen glancing nervously at what is coming up behind them, even if they know deep down that mass changes would be highly unlikely. The opening pair know they must do a lot better as a combination.
Dean Elgar had a horror show against Sri Lanka, with his confidence so low that he was even relegated from the slip cordon. Aiden Markram has so much ability that it looks as though he’ll make a hundred every time he unfurls a single cover drive.
But he has been afflicted with second-season syndrome and teams are now asking him different questions with the ball. He is good enough to adapt but, as his World Cup squad struggles would have taught him, international cricket moves on extremely quickly.
Temba Bavuma is another that will be quietly feeling the heat. He is classy enough to show promise at the crease, but keeps finding ingenious ways to get out. He is also still in search of a definitive knock for his country.
That is what Test No. 4 batsmen do for their teams. They take the game away from the opposition and do it with a style and a swagger that suggests they can do it at will. Bavuma spends time at the crease but is yet to reach full bloom.
Hashim Amla conundrum
The biggest conundrum of the summer is Hashim Amla. The veteran batsman looks increasingly as though his best days are behind him, with no way to turn that corner. His biggest contribution of this summer was in a one-dayer against Pakistan, in Port Elizabeth. In red ball cricket, he had stout contributions during the first Test against Pakistan, and then little else.
Amla is a crowd favourite, a familiar face in an ever-evolving team. He is a senior pro, in many senses, but he and his team run the danger of muddying clarity of thought with sentiment. He has not delivered the stay of execution knock that famines such as his require, and India looks a long, long way away.
Though the World Cup is the chief priority for South African cricket, Test cricket will always be of great importance. It is the arena in which the team is most comfortable, in which its biggest strengths are best utilised.
Beyond England 2019, the Test side may well have to blood anew once more. Dale Steyn may well see the World Cup as a swan song and there are persistent rumours about Vernon Philander and county cricket.
Proteas jersey losing its lustre?
Duanne Olivier has already dropped the latest Kolpak bombshell, turning his back on the summer of his wildest dreams and settling for the comfort and consistency of pounds from Yorkshire.
He was in the top 20 of the latest ICC rankings, but those numbers don’t affect the bank balance. Olivier is a blow that can be absorbed from a cricket perspective, because he showed some of his limitations when confronted by tracks lacking in pace or bounce.
But the symbolism of his decision to Kolpak up and leave – especially in light of other exits like Kyle Abbott and Rilee Rossouw – suggests that the pull of the Proteas jersey is not what it once was.
Finding that inner Rocky
That is tricky territory and Cricket South Africa’s disappointment, and no doubt concern, must stem from that. If a player can walk away from the opportunity to travel the world, playing for one of the biggest nations in the game, and from sharing a dressing room with a richly talented and diverse bunch, where does that leave the health of the game?
Sri Lanka, by virtue of their knockout punch delivered over just a fortnight, has forced South Africa to address some of its shortcomings. The loss would have hurt, no doubt, because it meant that Sri Lanka joined England and Australia as the only teams to have won a Test series on these shores.
That is esteemed company and Du Plessis and his team will be eager to ensure that the club remains extremely limited over the next few years. To do that, though, the Proteas need to find their batting mojo and rediscover their appetite for winning in conditions under which common sense dictates that they shouldn’t even have a prayer.
They need to do a Sri Lanka. In fact, they need to rediscover their inner Balboa. Then they can go back to being the Rocky of the story once more. India, in October, would not be a bad place to rewrite the script.