Cape Town – At times it made you want to fall asleep ... yet
somehow, always, it dared you to dream.
And then the dream came true.
The Proteas, no strangers to being branded frail of heart in
the past, found team-wide reserves of sheer, bloody-minded defiance to cling on
for a series-clinching second Test draw in bright evening sunshine after
varying periods of gloom and rain at Colombo’s Sinhalese Sports Club ground on
Yes, it required a fair dollop of luck to go with the
fortitude – the elements kept interrupting the Sri Lankans’ concerted and desperate
push – but all that really matters is that South Africa have returned to the
top of the ICC Test rankings and triumphed in Sri Lanka for the first time
Luck, good and bad, is a time-honoured feature of the
incomparable five-day game; sometimes you may rue it and sometimes you may ride
On this day Hashim Amla’s heroes often rode it, yet it
doesn’t dim their achievement.
It is an illuminating fact that they still ended up having
to negotiate 94 overs with nine wickets initially in hand on the on-and-off
day’s play. In many countries, where seamers would have had a massively greater
say, that’s still significantly more overs than you might squeeze in on a final
day in picture-perfect weather.
And who really cares, back on South African soil, that the
run rate seldom crawled much above a frankly novel one-and-a-quarter or
thereabouts to the over?
Throughout their batting effort in this particular Test
match, one where they were on the back foot after roughly its first hour, the
Proteas approached their task with a debatable level of caution: their first
innings did seem to have been constructed, when conditions were rather better
at the crease, too slowly.
In the end, though, all that matters is they got the minimum
result they required in Colombo to bag the series – we must bow to Amla, coach
Russell Domingo and others for their unusually stone-walling tactics having
The Proteas have played with more obvious urgency in Tests
on the Subcontinent before ... and lost.
Besides, in the overall context of the series you could
argue that they showed an eye-opening flexibility in approach, as there had
been much enterprise in the way they engineered victory in Galle.
A peculiar, unorthodox South African second-innings
scoreboard illustrates just how much a variety of their batsmen curbed their
normal, more attack-minded instincts to stick stoically to the game-plan: Dean Elgar
13 off 65 balls, Quinton de Kock 37 off 92, Amla 25 off 159, AB de Villiers 12
off 67, Faf du Plessis 10 off 59, JP Duminy 3 off 65, Vernon Philander 27 not
out off 98 (not to mention Messrs Steyn and Tahir doing their vital, delaying
This was not the stuff of aiding personal Test averages, but
my goodness, it was all worth its obdurate weight in a greater, collective good
Special words for two of the array of dapper trench-fighters,
in particular: a personal view was that Philander emerged the most resolute of
He is earning an increasing reputation for last-knock
resistance against the odds – remember how nearly he saved the decisive third
Test against Australia at Newlands in March? – and was immense both technically
and psychologically as ‘Lankans crowded ever closer around the bat while the
minutes ticked away to the nail-chewing close.
But Duminy’s decidedly unsexy, yet hugely game-influencing
little statistical landmark in this match cannot be overlooked either.
Over the course of successive innings of three (no, not a
printing gremlin) at the SSC, he shifted himself into second place in the Test
annals for slowest strike rate having faced a minimum of 100 deliveries in a
Duminy kept at bay 58 balls in his first dig and 65 in the
second, for a combined strike rate of 4.87 (his career one is 42.92!).
The only player “eclipsing” him is England wicketkeeper John
Murray, who registered nought and three over the course of 101 balls against
Australia at Sydney in January 1963, for a strike rate of 2.97 – but that
wasn’t in a saved cause, as the Aussies later won by eight wickets.
Here’s just something
else to quite pleasantly contemplate after a tumultuous, in so many ways,
mini-series: aren’t South Africa supposed to be a side in the throes of
supposedly tricky restructuring?
This was a remarkably forceful early signal -- in a place
where they have so often suffered near-misery -- of their renewed ambitions,
even if Australia do recapture the No 1 berth in the fairly short term and
things stay neck-and-neck for a while.
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing