Cape Town – As much as anything else, the Proteas’ fabulous
first-Test win at supposed “Fortress Galle” in Sri Lanka on Sunday has to go
down as a simultaneous triumph for the new strategic hierarchy of captain
Hashim Amla and coach Russell Domingo.
The latter has been in his berth for some time now, but this
was their first working alliance in the five-day arena and South Africa
delivered in a major way; considering the circumstances it was as comprehensive
a victory as has ever been earned by the national side on the Subcontinent.
Of course the mini-series has not been secured yet, with one
further encounter scheduled for Colombo’s Sinhalese Sports Club ground from Thursday.
But just avoid defeat there, on a track traditionally kind
to batsmen, and SA will have earned their first away series win against these
foes in 21 years.
Some of the gloss has been peeled from the Galle victory by
damaging worldwide publicity around another ball-tampering incident involving a
Proteas player – in the latest instance the fined Vernon Philander – although
the margin of 153 runs was wide enough to suggest the tourists would have
prevailed minus any jiggery-pokery.
Sublime man-of-the-match Dale Steyn and his long-time
head-hunting ally Morne Morkel grabbed 16 match scalps between them and were –
pertinently, perhaps? -- just as menacing after Philander-gate had burst into
the public spotlight and the second-innings ball was presumably treated in
rather more orthodox and saintly fashion while the Proteas were in the field.
There had been several good reasons to feel anxious back
home about South Africa’s prospects before the Galle Test began, not least the
fact that their record in Sri Lanka has traditionally been shaky, and the
‘Lankans were much more game-sharp having come straight off an impressive
series victory in England.
This was also a Proteas team setting out on a fresh era with
some rookie personnel and no longer able to summon established Test giants like
Messrs Kallis and Smith.
Throw in the fact that spin-conducive Galle is normally a seriously
happy hunting ground for Sri Lanka, and that the visitors were still brushing
off domestic winter rust, and the portents first-up certainly did not suggest a
near-crushing SA win.
This is where Domingo comes in: he would have been as painfully
aware as anyone of the hoodoo surrounding the Proteas in terms of “first Test
His view is that it cannot be wished away; it is indelibly
in the record books. So his solution, as expressed to this writer before tour
departure, was to encourage his men not to obsess over it too much for fear it
would only aggravate the weakness.
The slow-start trend goes back further, but only made more
horribly apparent in recent times by three successive instances, before the
‘Lankan mission, of South Africa largely failing to deliver the goods in first
They were gored by Pakistan in the first of two UAE Tests in
Abu Dhabi in 2013, then were outplayed for the lion’s share of the drawn first
2013/14 home Test against India in Johannesburg before so nearly, dramatically
snatching it, and then trounced by 281 runs to get the home series against
Australia fatally off on the back foot.
Well, the jinx was emphatically shattered in Galle, with the
Proteas looking a focussed and unusually stamina-laden unit right from the off
-- a pleasant change from many prior first Tests, and presumably with Domingo
at least in some way responsible for the new spirit of urgency and improved
As for Amla, he ticked an equally welcome box for strategic
enterprise in his maiden appearance as full-time Test skipper by proving that
his brave declaration at tea on day four, to begin the big push for victory, was
anything but a rash move.
I was among critics just a little fearful – particularly
when Sri Lanka overnighted on 110 for one chasing 370 – that he might have left
the door open to a cheeky home win, a result that would, let’s face it, have
been a calamity considering SA’s hitherto iron grip on the game.
But perhaps we of little faith had simply become too accustomed
over many years to South Africa first ensuring they eliminated any threat of
defeat -- by setting an impossible requirement to the opposition -- before
striking for victories that have occasionally proved infuriatingly, narrowly
elusive as the sands of time run out.
Amla’s positive move provided a refreshing reminder that it
often pays dividends to keep the foe “interested” rather than simply committed
to a stone-wall approach on the last day.
Who knows, perhaps old SA nemesis Kumar Sangakkara, going
threateningly well at the time on 76, might not have complacently glided a rank
long hop from JP Duminy straight into the hands of Amla had his thoughts for
Sunday been solely geared toward stalemate?
Having sounded a message that he may well favour an
attacking approach to captaincy on a consistent basis, Amla seems unlikely to
encourage a cautious attitude in the decisive Colombo Test, something that
might only play into the desperate Lankans’ hands.
This particular Test series job is only half done, but if a vibrant
new era is in the making for the Proteas, it has begun rather promisingly ...
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