Manner of SA’s return to No. 1 angers Aussies

Times Media

TELFORD VICE, Colombo

South Africans will be happy that their team regained the No. 1 test ranking by winning the series in Sri Lanka, but Australians are not best pleased.

Hashim Amla’s team, who won the first test in Galle convincingly, hung on with two wickets standing to draw the second and last match at Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) in Colombo on Monday.

The selectors showed what they thought of that performance yesterday when they named an unchanged squad for the one-off test against Zimbabwe in Harare, which starts on August 9.

Going into the Sri Lankan series, SA and Australia were at the top of the rankings with 123 ratings points each. The Australians were adjudged the No. 1 team by a fraction of a point.

Monday’s result means SA have gained a full ratings point – which puts them back in the spot they held for 21 months before the Aussies beat them 2-1 at home last season.

SA played abjectly defensive cricket throughout at SSC, preferring to sit on the advantage they had earned in Galle rather than make any serious attempts to engineer victory.

That did not make for attractive, enterprising play. But it was always going to be plan A for a side that had won neither a series in Sri Lanka nor a test on SSC’s dour pitches since 1993 and were asked to do so this time without Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis.

The biggest difference between the first and second tests was that Amla won the toss in Galle and was able to declare on 455/9. In Colombo, Angelo Mathews called correctly and Sri Lanka were able to dictate terms.

“It was almost a mirror image of the first test but the roles were reversed,” Amla said. “To win a test match you always have to have the upper hand and often you don’t have the pressure of wickets falling.

“But having stuck it out for a draw was a lot more character building because of the way everybody applied themselves.

“There was definitely nerves, tension, and the biting of fingernails in the changeroom. It was a lot more emotionally draining (than the Galle test).

“To win a series here, we knew there would be times when we would be at our breaking point. We almost were.”

That was not how the Aussies saw things. SA’s return to the top spot was ninth in the pecking order of cricket reports on the Melbourne Age’s website yesterday, and was headlined generically: “SA secure draw to secure No. 1 test cricket ranking from Australia”. The tabloid Brisbane Courier-Mail’s headline was “Proteas knock Aussies from top spot”.

What Australia’s heavyweight cricket writers will make of SA’s achievement will doubtless be known when next they pen an opinion piece, but stalwart scribe Malcolm Conn, now of the Sydney Daily Telegraph, did not hold back on Twitter.

“Anyone who cares about test cricket should despair at SA scoring 8/159 in 111 overs regardless of the rankings #shameful,” Conn tweeted. “I’d be ashamed if Australia regained the No. 1 ranking by killing test cricket.”

SA should beat Zimbabwe, but that will not do them much good in terms of the rankings – which are weighted to reflect teams’ relative strengths.

Australia, however, will be the No. 1 team again if they win their two-match series against Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates in October.

A corner of a Sri Lankan field becomes forever South African

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TELFORD VICE, Colombo

It smells of incense and sounds of crows. Bats slip silently on leathery wings across its sky at all times of day and, presumably, night. It is at the mercy of micro monsoons that come and go as routinely as tuk-tuks but with much greater impact. Consequently, the ground staff are on high alert, dragging on covers before the rain arrives if an interval allows, and always fueled by noisy enthusiasm.

The passionless pitch they protect is unlovable and unloved, except perhaps by Mahela Jayawardene. The heat that is the penance for daring to spend a day’s play in the stands seeps into the bones and stays there along with the memories.

In the splendour of an air-conditioned, carpeted room nestled in the main stand, troves of tarnishing trophies are crowded into a glass case along one wall. Near the wall opposite, in the haughty isolation of its own, bespoke case placed just so atop a plinth, a reminder of the day the big dreams of this small island became real gleams gloriously – the 1996 World Cup trophy itself.

Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) in Colombo is soaked in Sri Lankanness, at least, it is to this foreign eye. But, on Monday, it was the best place on earth for Hashim Amla and his South Africa team.

It was to SCC that South Africa came to defend the series lead they earned in Galle in the first Test. But much more than that rode on this second match, not least the trust of a public in the people suddenly at the helm of a team freshly without giants like Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis. Were they even thinking about regaining the No. 1 ranking they lost to Australia in March?

“Our goal was not to get back to No. 1,” Hashim Amla said after his team had forced the draw that had done exactly that. “It was to find a winning formula with a newish team. We’re certainly heading in that direction.

“This is a SA team who are very proud and passionate in the way we represent our country. We always want to go down fighting.

“To win a series here, we knew there would be times when we would be at our breaking point. We almost were.”

Amla did not say that his South Africa team have broken a drought of test series victories in Sri Lanka that has endured since 1993, when the Lankans were far from the canny, confident aide they are today. 

He did not add that never before have South Africa won the test and the one-day series on the same Sri Lankan tour.

Nor did Amla point out that winning a series in Sri Lanka had eluded two of his most illustrious predecessors as South Africa captains, Shaun Pollock and Graeme Smith.

He also did not see fit to recall that the last time South Africa trod SSC’s unforgiving earth, in 2006, they conceded 756/5 and lost by an innings.

In addition, Amla managed to stop himself from telling those who would have Russell Domingo’s head as South Africa’s coach for the single, stupid reason that he never played international cricket to shut up and sit down.

But Amla did say what Morne Morkel told him when South Africa’s eighth wicket fell with 49 balls still left in the match.

“He got a first-baller in the first innings, so you didn’t want him to have the anxiety of going out there to save the match. But, you know what, he kept re-assuring me. He kept telling me he was up for it.”

That is not unusual. South Africans always believe they are “up for” whatever “it” is. But, too often, that promise has not been matched by what they deliver.

The core problem has been that their teams have tended to believe their own marketing, a crippling error in a game that demands things are done much more than they are said.

Amla’s sentiments above hint that he has at least some of that streak, perhaps just enough to keep the suits confident that he has a handle on the corporate nonsense involved in modern captaincy. But the bigger truth is that he and Domingo are doers rather than talkers, and both should be proud of what they have done in Sri Lanka.

To have got the job done at a place like SSC, which is about as removed from South African reality as Sri Lanka, with its incense, crows and monsoon weather, is from Siberia only adds to that achievement. Bloody well done.

Philander, Tahir go from zeroes to heroes

Times Media

TELFORD VICE, Colombo

Before yesterday, Vernon Philander and Imran Tahir had had a forgettable test series in Sri Lanka. But, in the last 27 minutes of the second test at Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) in Colombo, they became heroes of SA’s return to the No. 1 ranking.

SA hung on with eight wickets down to draw the match and, on the back of their victory in the first test in Galle, clinch the series 1-0. That snatched back the No. 1 test ranking that the Aussies took by beating SA 2-1 in March.

It also made this SA side the first from the country to win a test series and a one-day rubber in Sri Lanka on the same tour. SA last claimed a test series here in 1993.

“Our goal was not to get back to No. 1,” SA captain Hashim Amla said. “It was to find a winning formula with a newish team. We’re certainly heading in that direction.

“This is a SA team who are very proud and passionate in the way we represent our country. We always want to go down fighting.”

In Galle, Philander and Tahir took just one wicket between them. Worse, Philander was convicted of ball-tampering. Things improved for the pigeon pair at SSC, where they added five wickets to SA’s cause. 

But when Tahir joined Philander in the middle yesterday, the match was in the balance. SA were 148/8 and 8.1 more overs would be bowled before stumps were drawn. The Lankans, meanwhile, were pushing hard to win.

With Morne Morkel – he of the golden duck in the first innings – the lone ranger left in SA’s shed, Philander and Tahir would have to get the job done.

They did, dealing with the 49 deliveries they faced with calm aplomb and even the odd shot in anger.

Rain limited the morning session to seven overs. But, with four spinners in operation, the Lankans zipped through 47 overs in the lengthened second session. SA scored just 49 runs in that time and lost two wickets to Rangana Herath, who took 5/40.

Quinton de Kock went simply enough, edging onto his pad and to short leg. But AB de Villiers’ dismissal was a thing of wonder.

Perhaps bored with sniping past the outside edge all day, Herath aimed a delivery a touch straighter. It dipped below everything De Villiers tried to put in its path, pitched under his bat, and turned and spat into the stumps.

That brought Faf du Plessis to the crease to face a field boobytrapped with seven men around the bat. Umpire Richard Kettleborough sent Du Plessis on his way immediately when he wore Herath’s next delivery on his pads. But the ball was clearly going down the leg side, which was confirmed when Du Plessis reviewed successfully.

Sri Lanka would have been more competitive between lunch and tea had they not squandered both their reviews. That left them without the advantage of electronic umpiring for at least 22.2 overs.

Just how much that cost them was confirmed when Amla was hit high on the back pad by the same bowler’s arm ball. This time Kettleborough said not out, but the ball was headed for the top of leg stump.

Justice was done three overs later when Amla drove stiffly at Dilruwan Perera and was smartly taken at slip by Mahela Jayawardene. Amla’s 25 had taken him 10 minutes short of three hours and consumed 159 balls.

Jayawardene held another fine catch four overs after that off Herath to snuff out the stubborn Du Plessis’ innings.

Rain after tea tilted the game away from the Lankans, but the last hour was four balls old when JP Duminy pushed forward to Perera and was palpably leg-before having faced 65 balls for his three.

With that, Dale Steyn and Philander were closely surrounded by 10 fielders. But all the Lankans needed to take SA’s eighth wicket was Herath’s sharp turn, the edge of Steyn’s bat, and Niroshan Dickwella’s wicketkeeping gloves.

Two wickets stood. Twenty-seven minutes and 49 balls were left. Tahir stepped across the boundary. And the rest was history. 

Tough task awaits, but SA eyes are on prize

Times Media

TELFORD VICE, Colombo

Ninety-eight overs is a long time in test cricket, especially on the last day of a match in which the opposition have picked their bowlers well, and when you need only a draw to clinch the series.

That is SA’s challenge going into the last day of the second test against Sri Lanka at Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) in Colombo today.

The visitors reached yesterday’s enforced close on 38/1. The 331 more runs SA will need to win today is even further away than the minimum of 98 overs they will have to face to escape with a draw.

What of the bad light and rain that took 35.1 overs out of yesterday’s play? Today’s forecast is largely clear.

The task, then, is as tough as it gets. But incentives do not come bigger for Hashim Amla’s team. If they do not lose today they will become the first SA side to claim both the test and one-day series on a tour to Sri Lanka. However, trying not to lose can be more difficult than attempting to win. 

“The more negative you become, the more defensively you play and it also tires you out,” Kumar Sangakkara said. “We’ll try to have as many fielders around the bat to make sure they play as defensively as possible.”

Not that SA had taken their eye off the ultimate prize.

“Sri Lanka have played most of the cricket in this test, but we are in the fight,” AB de Villiers said. “We’re in with a shout; more hard work and we’ll reassess at tea.”

An indication that SA still harboured hopes of victory came with Quinton de Kock’s promotion to No. 3. He was 21 not out and looking good at the early close.

“He’s a positive player and he bats up the order at home (in domestic cricket),” De Villiers said.

Sri Lanka built their lead to 368 before declaring with 38 overs scheduled to be bowled, only 17 materialised because of the weather. 

Enterprising batting by Sangakkara and Angelo Mathews kept the home side going forward, and their stand of 81 was a double-edged sword that gleamed with attacking intent.

Unlike in the first innings, when he succumbed first ball, Sangakkara kept his head and his wicket to score 72. Mathews saw the job through to the end, reaching 63 not out before calling a halt to his team’s innings.

What with a match and a series in the balance, it is not the time for individual celebrations. But Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel will be quietly chuffed with what they achieved yesterday.

Steyn’s two scalps took him to 374 career wickets and past Waqar Younis as test cricket’s 15th highest wicket-taker. 

Morkel’s bag of 4/45 earned him his 200th wicket in his 58th test. Among South Africans, only Steyn, Allan Donald, Shaun Pollock and Makhaya Ntini have got there faster. Add Jacques Kallis to that list and Morkel is the sixth SA bowler to take 200 wickets.

“I play in a lot of teams around the world and I know what people say about him,” De Villiers said. “They’re quite scared of Morne Morkel. In the nets, he’s the worst bowler to face.”

Both Steyn and Morkel showed the form that helped SA win the first test in Galle last Sunday, Steyn with aggression and swing and Morkel with bounce and accuracy.

But this match is Sri Lanka’s for the winning. Whatever the war talk, most of SA’s focus will be on survival.

Don’t forget those who came, saw, but were not given a chance to conquer

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE, Colombo

“K,” was how Kyle Abbott began answering the last question of his impromptu press conference on the outfield at Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) in Colombo on Tuesday. “Y, L, E,” he continued.

“New word – A, B, B, O, double T.” The reporters, Sri Lankan every one, took careful notice of how to spell his name.

By the time the second test started on Thursday, Abbott’s stock had risen all the way to the top of the towering manual scoreboard at SSC, which had him opening the batting. It listed his partner as Hashim Amla, with Quinton de Kock at No. 3 and Dean Elgar allegedly coming in after AB de Villiers, JP Duminy and Faf du Plessis …

Ah, alphabetical order you sneaky thing. Except that Wayne Parnell would have been surprised to read he was in the side while Vernon Philander and Dale Steyn would have been shocked not to see their names up there. The XI, meanwhile, was a man short: only 10 Saffers were listed on the board.

Parnell was not among them. He played in the tour match before the one-day series and in one of the three ODIs, but his test series will be remembered for his hairstyle: a ponytail tied high on the crown of his head that contrasts edgily with his beard. Might Parnell be rocking some kind of samurai-meets-steampunk concept cut?

Also not chosen on Thursday were Dane Piedt and Stiaan van Zyl, who like Abbott had come all the way to Sri Lanka to not get a game. What would that do to them?

“Mentally you get used to being a member of the support staff and not the playing staff, and you could end up losing a bit of competitive sharpness,” said Adam Bacher, who knows of whence he speaks.

Bacher was relegated to “catching splinters” for much of a triangular tournament in Australia in 1997-98, so much so that he talked his way into playing in a schools match after going two weeks without time in the middle before the third test in Adelaide. He also missed SA’s last three tests in England in 1998 after breaking his collarbone in the field in the second match of the series at Lord’s.

Players needed to keep an eye on the politics of sitting out, Bacher said.

“Despite all the negative personal issues that being on the sidelines can have, it is very important to show the team that you are completely behind them no matter how frustrated you become.

“Negative or selfish tendencies will very quickly be picked up by management or the team, making your future appearance within the team a little less certain.”

Parnell and Abbott know the thrill of playing for SA, but Piedt and Van Zyl must be disappointed not to have made their debuts in the wake of the hype over their selection.

All they have known since is the dubious privilege of wearing non-players’ dayglo bibs. Enthusiasm can get you through only so many practice sessions, especially in the cloying heat of Sri Lanka, before banal reality sets in: it doesn’t get any better than this.

So there must be admiration for the snap, crackle and pop that Abbott and Piedt brought to their interaction with a gaggle of children at SSC on Tuesday. Each of the kids – rather, their parents – had paid 5000 rupees (R873) to be part of a coaching session with SA and Lankan players. The money raised will help Sri Lanka’s team go to the blind World Cup in SA in November.

Abbott supervised a lively catching session while Piedt was locked in an enthusiastic discussion on the intricacies of spin bowling with Mandani Tennakoon, a 15-year-old off-spinner. “I wasn’t really thinking about a future in cricket, but that was so inspiring that now I might change my mind,” she said.   

Perhaps those South Africans who came, saw, but were not given a chance to conquer achieved something in Sri Lanka after all.

Amla the tortured and the torturer as SA drip runs into bottomless bucket

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE, Colombo

Chinese water torture has nothing on the runs that SA dripped into a bottomless bucket at Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) in Colombo yesterday.

It was difficult to tell whether Hashim Amla was the torturer or among the tortured. He scored an undefeated 139 and was at the crease for more than eight hours or all but 36 minutes of his team’s entire innings.

“He was really patient and he applied himself very well,” coach Russell Domingo said. “He stuck to his gameplan.”

But Amla would have needed to score exactly double what he made for SA to match Sri Lanka’s 421. Instead, they were dismissed for 282. At stumps on the third day, the home side had reached 11/0 in their second innings, a lead of 150.

At times, play was so slow that the match seemed to moonwalk backwards. SA eked 65 runs out of the 30 overs that comprised the morning session, 71 in the 29 bowled between lunch and tea, and 48 from the 23.1 they faced in the third session before their innings was euthanised.

From the moment Angelo Mathews won the toss, SA’s plan had been to forge as close to the Lankans’ total as possible. And to hell, they seemed to decide, with how long it took them to get there what with a 1-0 series lead to lean on.

That approach did not make for entertaining play but there will be no gripes if defeat is staved off. Domingo described SA’s gameplan as “to get what we could with the bat” but acknowledged that was a fluid concept.

“It would have been great to get another 100 runs, but it would also have been great to bat for another three or four hours even if we only got another 50 runs.”

However, playing for a draw from the second day, which SA have been doing since the start of their innings an hour before tea on Friday, is rarely the sensible option.

Were SA ready to survive a marathon fourth innings – like they did against Australia in Adelaide in November, 2012 when they stayed alive for 124.3 overs – and against India at the Wanderers in December, when 136 overs  were conquered?

“I think they are,” Domingo said. “I’m sure they are. They’ve done it before.”

But Adelaide and the Wanderers are not SSC. If anyone can win on this cadaver of a pitch, which makes last week’s desert landing strip in Galle look alive with possibility by comparison, Sri Lanka can.

Their medusa, a spin attack hissing with Rangana Herath, Dilruwan Perera and Ajantha Mendis, may yet spit in SA’s faces and deny them the glory of winning a test series here for the first time since 1993.

Yesterday, Perera, a stealth bomber of an off-spinner, quietly took 5/69. Herath’s pin-point left-arm stodge earned him 4/71. If anything, they will pose an even bigger threat to SA in the second innings.

The visitors will hope Imran Tahir, who has had a disappointing series so far, can do something similar to limit the Lankans’ lead.

“Imran has a big role to play, especially with all the rough outside the left-hander’s off-stump,” Domingo said.

Amla was dropped on 10 and 93. Unflustered, he put on half-century stands with Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers, did not blink when Perera removed De Villiers and Quinton de Kock with consecutive deliveries, and shared useful partnerships all the way down the order.

No-one knows if he changed his gloves. Yes, he is that good.

Leading Edge: What tuk-tuks can teach us about test cricket

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE, Colombo

Most journeys undertaken by foreigners in Colombo start with a question: “Meter?” Whereupon the tuk-tuk driver will waggle his head in a way that could signify to someone from Africa, “Yes”, “No”, “Maybe” or “Why do you damn fool alien species always think you’re so bloody clever?”

Sometimes he will point to the meter’s numerals glowing reassuringly above the windscreen. Other times, you will have to duck your head inside the vehicle to see them. But, if he ignores your question and asks, “Where going?” he does not have a meter and will try to fleece you into agreeing to a fare higher than you should pay.

Of course, even if his tuk-tuk is equipped with a meter, there is nothing to stop him from driving unsuspecting, trusting you 20 blocks in the wrong direction from where you have asked to be taken, doubling back on another road, and dropping you off, as ordered, but 20 minutes later and 500 rupees lighter than you should have been.

And another thing – if you negotiate the fare instead of using the meter and the driver hears you refer to his tuk-tuk as a tuk-tuk, the price will go up. In India, call it an “auto” if you want to avoid paying ignorance tax. In Sri Lanka, it becomes a “trishaw”.

These rules are not written, but somehow they are known. Thank goodness, because something needs to govern the heaving, putting, rocking, hooting unruly mass of tuk-tuks that roam, seemingly haphazardly, like giant, drunken bees all over many cities on the Asian sub-continent.

Tuk-tuk drivers are this way because of that a simple but irrisistable thing: competition. If you don’t like the cut of one fella’s jib or the look of his meter, the next bloke lurks as near as his mate’s back wheels. 

Something similar is happening in test cricket. Without intense competition, the game is esoteric enough to become nothing more than marketing in motion. Yes, it is cricket in its purist and best form. No, its square peg is not designed to fit into the shape-shifting hole of the 21st century.

So, will the best test team please continue to not stand up too tall. To remain significant in a global sporting culture where they who shout loudest get the most attention, cricket needs the context that can be delivered only by a tussle something like what is seen between competing tuk-tuk drivers every day in Colombo.

As things stand, Australia are ranked the No. 1 test team. But only just. SA are a fraction of a point behind, and victory in their series in Sri Lanka will push them back to the top – a position they had held for 21 months when the Aussies came and took it last season.

As good as it feels for South Africans to bathe in the reflected glory of the team they support being recognised as the best in the game, they would do better to see the bigger picture and hope that if Hashim Amla’s men get the top spot back they do not hold on to it for as long this time.

Just like having many tuk-tuks on the street means fair fares and that supply more or less meets demand, so having as many competitive teams out there as possible means cricket stays relevant. Gentlemen, get your motors running.