Cape Town – Slightly
different circumstances, I know, but the Proteas’ one-spinner-only selection
gaffe for the final Test against Sri Lanka ranks right up there in my mind with
Nasser Hussain’s much-publicised Ashes booboo.
Back in 2002/03,
then-England skipper Hussain infamously won an appealing,
first-day-of-the-series toss against the Australians on a Brisbane near-belter
… and duly announced “we’ll have a bowl”.
The folly of
his choice was brutally exposed by the close of play that day, with the Baggy Greens
an imperious 364 for two … a firm psychological foothold in a series the home
side went on to win 4-1 (about as emphatically as the ‘Lankans downed the
Proteas in the shorter, much more recent hostilities).
a sense of humour, which helps, but the now highly-rated television commentator
has never really been able to live it down subsequently.
Have the post-isolation
South African Test cricket team ever made a worse tactical error - even if it
had to do with selection, rather than a toss decision - than they did at the
Sinhalese Sports Club?
doubtful, by my book.
We don’t yet
know who, specifically, may have been responsible for the “three quicks and one
spinner” makeup of the SA bowling arsenal.
like to think just one fatally, especially adamant person among the team
strategists erred. (If the decision was made by a “committee”, perhaps that’s
even more worrying?)
We may have
to wait for someone’s autobiography to establish the truth, though head coach
Ottis Gibson did at least have the grace to confess as the Test moved toward an
inevitable outcome: “It did not turn out to be the best decision.”
it also sounded like a glib understatement of some magnitude.
The spin –
sorry, perhaps not the best choice of expression - provided by both Gibson and
captain Faf du Plessis was that the Proteas hoped the dry surface would become
abrasive, facilitating reverse swing (it notably never materialised) for the
seam-laden SA attack as the game progressed.
“reverse” can develop into a useful phenomenon on the Subcontinent, but by
thinking so far ahead and seemingly relying on assumption more than anything
else – at the expense of the conditions as they clearly existed right at the
important outset – the Proteas went an awfully long way to digging their own
graves on day one.
brazenly ignore evidence from at least the prior two Test matches at the SSC, which
only screamed deafeningly “CRAM YOUR SPIN RANKS”?
Both those earlier
matches were characterised not only by the necessarily, hugely lopsided weight
of bowling done by spinners, but their prolific successes in the wickets column
In 2017, when
India beat Sri Lanka, Rangana Herath (a scourge again to SA over the past
fortnight) grabbed 4/154 in the Indian first innings, and India duly replied
with the first-knock exploits of Ravichandran Ashwin (5/69) and then Ravindra
Jadeja when the ‘Lankans batted again (5/152).
A 2016 Sri
Lankan triumph over Australia had seen Herath bag 6/81 and then 7/64, and the
tourists’ off-spinner Nathan Lyon also prosper (4/123 in the home side’s second
examine the aftermath of the 199-run SA defeat at the venue: sadly it is something
that again only points to how the Sri Lankans got it spot-on with their
three-spinner brew, and the Proteas were so daft to put their attack’s
construction focus on three quickies and just the subsequently overworked (yet mostly
very impressive) Keshav Maharaj for specialist tweaking needs.
Bear in mind
also that Tabraiz Shamsi had gone to the trouble, after flying home between
Tests due to a family bereavement, of returning in time for potential selection
for Colombo; instead he simply wore a bib powerlessly beyond the boundary ropes
for game two.
In what may
amount to some sort of novel landmark, Sri Lanka’s captain and lone pace
bowler, Suranga Lakmal, didn’t bowl at all in the SA first innings and trundled
a token two overs - call it a mini-net for him? - in the second.
was a ceaseless dose of spin, spin and more spin as the ‘Lankans successfully
entrusted their trio of masters at the craft – Messrs Herath, Perera and
Dananjaya - with snaring all 20 Proteas wickets between them on a pitch that
turned and dusted increasingly.
It all too
quickly became apparent in the Test that South Africa’s speed arsenal would
have limited value from bending their backs, so three- or four-over, mere
containment-conscious stints became their general norm, before retreating to the
relative anonymity of deep fielding positions for long periods.
began to look ridiculous.
course, inwardly cried out for a proper “spin twin” at the other end, and there
is little doubt in my own mind that his greater struggle for wickets in the
second innings (3/154, as opposed to record-breaking 9/129 in the first) was
partly down to sheer, accumulating exhaustion and involuntary phases of loss of
verve as a result.
It was a
will be hugely anxious ones like it – even remotely so -- don’t happen again
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: