SA’s Colombo clanger can’t be glossed over

2018-07-24 13:00
Ottis Gibson (Gallo)

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).

Hussain has 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?

It is 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.

You’d almost 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.”

Unfortunately, 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.

We know “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.

Did they 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 as well.

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 innings).

Now let’s 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.

Otherwise it 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.

Frankly, it began to look ridiculous.

Maharaj, of 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 royal stuff-up.

Proteas fans will be hugely anxious ones like it – even remotely so -- don’t happen again soon.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    sri lanka  |  proteas  |  ottis gibson  |  cricket


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