Sri Lanka in SA

Proteas set to turn up heat

2011-12-17 22:06
Vernon Philander (Gallo)
Comment: Rob Houwing, Sport24 chief writer

Cape Town – The blindingly obvious frailties of the opposition notwithstanding, South Africa can take great heart from a first-Test performance against Sri Lanka at Centurion that demonstrated welcome, sustained ruthlessness.

The Proteas certainly weren’t playing world-beaters, and thrashing them by an innings before tea on day three will have only added fuel to the growing argument that this format of the game should be split into two tiers, with far greater emphasis on genuine strength-versus-strength battles.

But while it would be discourteous to summarily write the Lankans off after being bundled out for respective totals of 180 and 150 in a grand total of 86.5 overs in the first of three contests at SuperSport Park, the match only really sent out an embarrassing reminder of their abject track record in South Africa.

They have had a particularly wretched past 18 months or so in Tests overall, and a tweet from Wisden India after Saturday’s rout was completed asked the not unimportant question: “Is Sri Lanka’s continuing slide more proof that (now retired) Muttiah Muralitharan was perhaps the most valuable player in cricket history?”

The shell-shocked tourists will try to beef up their arsenal ahead of the second Test in Durban from Boxing Day by flying in an apparently fit-again pair of seamers, Nuwan Kulasekara and Dhammika Prasad.

They are hardly Holding and Roberts, but will at least give the Lankans more options to consider, especially after all-rounder Angelo Mathews picked up an injury at Centurion and faces a race against time to be fit for the second Test.

What the visitors desperately require in the remainder of the series are richer harvests of runs from their big two of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara -- the latter, for example, faced only 11 balls for a miserly three runs across two knocks in the Highveld Test.

Despite the surface being notably on the sporty side – not for the first time in this country in 2011/12, which probably opens up a separate debate – South Africa showed admirable patience, after their slightly over-eager approach at the crease against Australia recently, to bat out 561 minutes and 122 overs for a beefy tally of 411 in their lone innings.

Most of their frontline batsmen contributed, with Mark Boucher’s 65 particularly welcome to the cause and leg-spinner Imran Tahir also showing that there is perhaps more run-scoring potential among the Proteas’ supposedly bunny-like “nine, 10 and 11” than had been imagined.

In a nutshell, the Proteas did what they had to do in this match extremely well.

As always their frisky pace attack got stuck in with relish and diligence, and even the long-in-tooth Jacques Kallis got a healthy whiff of gun-smoke as he unleashed a bit of a revenge quest on Dilhara Fernando – who had felled him earlier in the match – by blitzing him with a few deliveries extremely close to the 145km/h mark.

The odd man out was Morne Morkel, who was largely forgettable despite the favourable environment at Centurion, but the big man did at least demonstrate what he is capable of with a beautiful delivery to dismiss Thilan Samaraweera in the Lankan second knock.

I fancy there will be virtually no debate about his right to an opportunity to redeem himself in Durban: an overdue, solid run of cricket is exactly what a “rhythm” bowler like him needs and Lonwabo Tsotsobe’s addition to the squad for the last two Tests is probably more about phasing him back in the system at this stage after his own enforced layoff.

Presumably Jacques Rudolph’s finger injury is not considered a major impediment; Alviro Petersen, who did plenty of on-field duty as a substitute fielder at SuperSport Park, shapes as a logical, direct replacement if necessary.

Rudolph still did not look massively convincing as Graeme Smith’s opening partner, but the pair posted 88 together and the former knuckled down for almost four hours for his 44 – a pleasing development after his impetuous exits at times against the Aussies.

Meanwhile Vernon Philander, of course, cranks up even further his status as the hottest new kid on the Test cricket block.

No wonder one of the game’s bloggers suggested: “This guy’s name should be 5lander.”

Respective five-wicket hauls in just his third Test rightly earned him the man-of-the-match accolade and he now sports 24 scalps at a blistering average of 12.38.

Comparisons with the great Glenn McGrath for ability to strike a “business length” unwaveringly look more and more justified ... perhaps we might want to stop short of nicknaming him “Pigeon” after the skinny-legged Australian, however?

As Philander said at the post-match presentation: “I always try to find that in-between length where the batsman doesn’t know whether to go forward or back.”

Old Kingsmead hand Shaun Pollock, meanwhile, stated the obvious in SuperSport television analysis, but could hardly be faulted for accuracy when he pointed out: “Durban is still bouncier than most tracks in South Africa.

“The going will stay hard for Sri Lanka.”

Not too many would offer a contrary view ...

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