It’s a rare day when SA win in Sri Lanka

Hashim Amla’s struggles send pangs of anxiety through South African hearts but JP Duminy is not done.

TMG Digital

TELFORD VICE in Cape Town

SOUTH Africa managed to do something in Dambulla on Sunday that escaped them in the first three weeks of their series in Sri Lanka: win.

After playing poor cricket throughout two Tests, and losing both comfortably, Faf du Plessis’ team got it together well enough in the first one-day international to earn the honours by five wickets with 19 overs to spare.

But best South Africans don’t breathe that sigh of relief just yet — there are four more ODIs to come, the next at the same venue on Wednesday.

Besides, while the victory was comprehensive it was not wholly convincing.

South Africa’s ideas seemed to evaporate in the stiff wind that blew all day after sniping bowling on a responsive pitch by Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi — and JP Duminy’s whiplash pick-up-and-throw to hit the only stump he could see to run out Upul Tharanga — reduced the Lankans to 36/5 inside nine overs.

Besides taking wickets in their 11 overs together with the new ball, only once did Rabada or Ngidi concede more than nine runs in any of those overs.

Then came Wiaan Mulder and Andile Phehlukwayo, who went for 16 and 12 in their first overs. The six they bowled together yielded 66.

Enter Tabraiz Shamsi and Duminy to slow the flow of runs to 37 in their eight overs in tandem, along the way breaking the partnership of the Pereras — Kusal and Thisara — at 92.

Left-arm wrist spinner Shamsi kept going and ended the innings at 193 midway through the 35th over when he had Lahiru Kumara easily stumped.

Shamsi and Rabada were full value for their four wickets each and Ngidi’s economy rate of 3.62 told of more quality bowling.

But it was puzzling to see bowlers of the calibre of Mulder and Phehlukwayo fail to come to terms with conditions that shouldn’t have been that foreign to them.

Battingwise, too, there were questions. Sri Lanka had been dismissed early enough for six overs to be bowled in South Africa’s reply before lunch — and in that time they lost Hashim Amla and Aiden Markram, both to clumsy batsmanship and both to Akila Dananjaya, the impish right-arm finger and wrist spinner.

Amla went back when he should have been forward and was bowled. Markram didn’t pick the googly and was trapped plumb in front.

To watch a great like Amla struggle with the core concepts of batting like he has done for much of the past year sends a pang of anxiety through many South African hearts.

He has not scored a century in his last 27 Test or one-day innings and has been dismissed in the single figures nine times.

Markram is nothing less than the future of South Africa’s top order, a player of Amla’s stature in the making.

But his duck on Sunday was his third in seven innings on this tour. Only twice in those trips to the crease has he made it to double figures.

Happily, for South Africa, there was better news to report from other corners of the order.

Quinton de Kock took his centuryless streak in Tests and ODIs to 23 innings. But the 47 he scored on Sunday was a welcome reminder of the player he is.

De Kock and Du Plessis shared 86 off 96 balls in South Africa’s major partnership, a settling intervention after the early loss of Amla and Markram.

It is no small thing that despite the burden the troubles of the Test series would have put on the captain, Du Plessis seems to have emerged with his own game intact.

And then came Duminy. His fearless, forthright play was defiance on legs from a player who last held a bat for South Africa in the Lord’s Test a year ago and who has become an afterthought in discussions about the World Cup.

Duminy edged the third ball he faced, from Dananjaya, short of slip. He swept the next delivery from outside his off-stump metres over the midwicket fence for six.

He explained that approach in a television interview as “knowing your gameplan and sticking to it no matter what happens”.

Duminy also hammered a six over long-on, swept two fours and lashed four more boundaries through the covers and backward point.

An unbeaten 53 off 32 are the minor details of his effort.

What it really means is this: JP Duminy is not done.

Advertisements

2019 World Cup: SA will come ready but Pakistan will have the edge

South Africa will be among the best prepared teams.

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE in Cape Town

IMRAN Khan has other things on his mind these days, but he should be pleased to know that Pakistan will beat Australia in the World Cup final at Lord’s on July 14, 2019.

If Khan doesn’t come to the sticky end that too often is a consequence of getting into politics it would be a good to have Pakistan’s prime minister on hand amid the old farts in the grandest pavilion in cricket to do the honours and hand over the trophy.

For the captain of the team who took one foot off an early flight home to win the 1992 World Cup to embrace the survivor among the several captains Pakistan will go through before next year’s edition of the tournament is concluded is too valuable a nugget of history to go unpolished.

How do we know it will present itself for polishing? Call it a spurious theory but Pakistan have the best chance of winning because they are the only foreign team who have confirmed one-day internationals in England between now and the start of the tournament.

Five of them, the last one only 11 days before England play South Africa in the World Cup opener at The Oval on May 30.

India’s three-game series in England, which ended on July 17, will be the last ODIs there until the Pakistanis start their rubber on May 8. That translates into 293 days worth of advantage.

It wasn’t how things happened before the 2015 World Cup, when 26 ODIs were played in Australia and New Zealand involving South Africa, Sri Lanka, England, India, Hong Kong and Papua New Guinea.

This time ODI teams will be in action. Just not where it matters. Except Pakistan.

India will play 27 games in the format at home and in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Australia and New Zealand.

The Aussies are in for 16 ODIs, in India and the UAE as well as at home. 

England will play 15 — five each away in Sri Lanka and West Indies before that home rubber against Pakistan.

New Zealand have lined up three against Pakistan in the UAE, and home series of three, five and three games each against Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh: 14.

Thirteen is all that’s been written for West Indies; five in India, three in Bangladesh, five at home against England.

South Africa? Five in Sri Lanka, three at home hosting Zimbabwe, another three in Australia, and 10 back home against Pakistan and the Lankans.

That adds up to 21, which means South Africa will be among the best prepared teams by the time they line up with England for the national anthems at The Oval.

It all starts for them in the first match of the series against Sri Lanka in Dambulla today. There’s not much use in cross-referencing performances across formats, but South Africa need to make a fist of things in the ODIs in the wake of the mess they made of the test series.

“The guys, especially those who played in the test series, couldn’t wait for the one-dayers to start: you can see they’re excited,” Wiaan Mulder, who wasn’t part of the test squad but is in the mix for the ODIs and should be part of the World Cup plan, told reporters in Colombo this week.

“The guys who came in, we have so much energy and that’s what they asked of us.”

That much was obvious from the one-day tour match the South Africans played in Colombo on Thursday.

Faf du Plessis came good with 71 but Quinton de Kock, Amla and Aiden Markram — all veterans of the test series — failed with the bat. David Miller, Reeza Hendricks and Mulder — all freshly arrived — scored more than half the runs.

Then another new face, Junior Dala, along with Mulder and Tabraiz Shamsi, who should never have been left out for the second test, claimed eight wickets.  

It was only a tour match but, given what we’ve seen in the past few days, it was a start.

Leading Edge: Should we give a toss about the toss?

Test cricket’s champion backyard bullies in the past five years are … Yup. That’s right. You guessed it.

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE in Cape Town

JOURNALISTS behaving badly is a matter of misguided honour, so a Sri Lankan reporter covering that team’s tour to South Africa in 2016-17 copped a heap of flak from his Saffer colleagues.

Neither he nor us had anything to do with South Africa winning all three tests and all five one-day internationals but we didn’t think twice about telling him how crap “his” team were.

And when the Lankans got it together well enough to win the T20s 2-1 we told him why that didn’t matter: play properly in a proper format before you bother us with your ludicrous argument, fool.

All in good, clean pressbox fun, of course. No spouses were denigrated, no shoulder charges were meted out, no sandpaper was spirited into anyone’s underwear, and no retaliatory sanctimoniousness was tolerated.

So there was no surprise when, with the Sri Lankan’s prime abusers not having made South Africa’s current tour there, this message from him fluttered into their inboxes: “Missing you guys, mainly because it would be nice to return the insults.”

With the South Africans playing cricket that would have got them a bollocking from a mini-cricket coach, he would have had ample opportunity.

How could it be that similar sets of players — 21 of the 31 involved this time were in the 2016-17 squads — could deliver such contrasting results?

The International Cricket Council (ICC) had a go: “There is serious concern about the current level of home team interference in test pitch preparation …”

In the past five years 54.9% of tests played have been won by the home team — 9.4% more than in the five years before that.

The biggest climbers have been New Zealand, who won 63.64% of their home tests between 2013 and 2018, up from 15%. But the latter figure is skewed by the fact that 11 of those 20 tests were drawn.

And the champion backyard bullies in the past five years are …

Yup. That’s right. You guessed it.

India are on top with a winning percentage of 73.91, and it will add to the schadenfreude of sledging victims everywhere that Australia are next on 73.08%.

South Africa? They won 59.09% of the time at home in the first period and 62.96% in the second, and are sixth on the current list.

Two teams have gone backwards in these terms, one of which are Zimbabwe. The other are England, who are 11.08% less successful at home these days than they were between 2008 and 2013. Ag shame.

But, overall, visiting teams are winning fewer games. What to do, if anything?

“ … more than one [cricket] committee member believes that the toss should be automatically awarded to the visiting team in each match, although there are some others on the committee who do not share that view.”

That’s some of the rest of what the ICC said, and they’re serious: next year’s Ashes could be the first test series to be tossless, which has been the norm in county cricket since 2016.

Feathers have been ruffled. Some of them belong to Allan Donald, these days Kent’s bowling coach, who told the Canterbury Journal: “I’m of view that if you win the toss you should do what you need to do rather than rocking up knowing you are going to bowl.”

Then there’s Dale Steyn, who was quoted by the Press Trust of India as saying: “Traditional cricket has gone out the window; T20 cricket has changed the game.

“If someone says [scrapping the toss] is going against the traditional thing, he’s blind.”

Donald and Steyn didn’t say the obvious: barring the kind of cheating we saw from groundsmen in India in 2015, if you prepare properly and play properly — neither of which South Africa have managed in Sri Lanka — your results will take care of themselves. 

So, do you give a toss?

Why Gift Ngoepe should matter as much as Kevin Anderson

Ngoepe plays a sport that has almost no presence where he was raised and has moved to a country that doesn’t understand much about the world he came from.

Times Select

TELFORD VICE in Cape Town

GIFT Ngoepe doesn’t hit the headlines anymore. At least, not like he did when he became Major League Baseball’s (MLB) first Africa-born player in April last year.

These days, what passes for Ngoepe news reads more like this: “SA baseball sensation hits ‘home run’, gets ENGAGED!”

That’s the crappy clickbait headline that hit South Africans who stumbled across the guilty site on July 18, days after Ngoepe and Cait Anderson, a television producer, announced their betrothal on, of course, social media.

“Congratulations to Gift and Cait, from South Africa!”

That was the last, clumsily punctuated line of the six-paragraph story.

The penultimate line of the piece was also grammatically challenged, but at least it told us something we might not have known: “Ngoepe is yet to hit a home run in MLB.”

That’s true. But it would have added context to include that Ngoepe, like many light-hitting utility infielders who have vast range in the field and speed to burn but not much power, doesn’t hit many home runs.

And that he hasn’t played a game in the MLB since May 2 in Minneapolis, when his only involvement was as a pinch runner for Kendrys Morales — who had reached third base in the top of the 10th inning for the Toronto Blue Jays against the Minnesota Twins with Toronto leading 5-4.

Aledmys Diaz rapped the first pitch he faced from John Curtiss past third base for a single. Ngoepe scored in what became a 7-4 Blue Jays win.    

In his previous game, at Yankee Stadium in New York on April 20, Ngoepe replaced Curtis Granderson in the bottom of the eighth inning.

Granderson had pinch hit for Diaz, the Twins’ starting shortstop, in the top of the eighth.

Then Ngoepe helped effect a rare 1-2-6 double play — pitcher to catcher to shortstop — to end the eighth inning when Neil Walker stuck out swinging to John Axford and catcher Luke Maile’s throw reached Ngoepe in time for him to put the tag on Aaron Hicks, who was trying to steal second.

Alas, for the Twins, the Yankees won 4-3.

The last time Ngoepe batted in an MLB game was in Toronto on April 18, when he went 0-2 against the Kansas City Royals.

He was up ninth and struck out twice, both times to Ian Kennedy; first in the bottom of the second on four pitches — the three strikes all knuckle curves he didn’t swing at — then on eight pitches, having worked the count to three balls and two strikes, in the bottom of the fourth.

Maile pinch hit for Ngoepe with two out in the bottom of the fifth and Toronto leading 5-4 in a game they would win 15-5.

As of Monday the Blue Jays have played 79 games since that May outing against the Twins in Minneapolis, all of them without Ngoepe.

Instead, five days after he last appeared for Toronto he was sent to the minor leagues, where he is playing for the Buffalo Bisons in upstate New York.

There, in 137 plate appearances, he has had 19 hits, 22 walks and once been hit by a pitch, which also gets you to first base.

That earns Ngoepe an average of .170: not tolerable even for a valuable infielder playing in the big leagues, much less for a minor leaguer hoping to get back to the bigs.

Ngoepe doesn’t need to hit home runs — that’s accepted as the job of first-basemen and outfielders — but it wouldn’t hurt his chances if he did.

What he needs to do more than anything is gather base hits something like consistently in a game in which players who do so in even a third of their turns at bat are considered excellent.

Thing is, hitting a baseball successfully at MLB level is among the most difficult feats for anyone playing any sport to accomplish anywhere.

It’s fiendishly harder than hitting a cricket ball where you want it to go: laying a flat bat on a round ball properly is far easier than getting a good result from putting a circular bat to a round ball.

Polokwane-born Ngoepe first hit the headlines as the star of a fairytale. He was the kid who grew up dirt poor with his mother and brother, who all lived in a six metre square room in the clubhouse of a Randburg ballpark.

His interest was piqued by what he saw out the window, and the rest was a tale of wonder: somehow he went to an MLB academy in Tirrenia, Italy; somehow he played 704 games in the minor leagues; somehow he made his MLB debut for the Pittsburgh Pirates against the Chicago Cubs in Pittsburgh on April 26, 2017; somehow he cracked the Cubs’ ace, Jon Lester, up the middle for a single in his first at-bat …

Somehow has nothing to do with it. Ngoepe is who and where he is on the back of a ton of talent, a little luck and boatloads of bloody hard work.

He grew up, lest we forget, impoverished in a country that calls itself a democracy despite the moneyed classes not recognising people like him until they become what are considered problems.

It’s all good as long as you aren’t being impoverished on the pavement outside our luxury apartment blocks or at the windows of our expensive cars.

Kevin Anderson grew up in Johannesburg’s leafier suburbs with a tennis court in his back yard, a family who all played the game, and a father who doubled as his coach.

Tennis earned him a scholarship to US, and he has claimed four tournament titles and reached the final at the US Open and Wimbledon.

Again, all good. But it might make us want to shout: “You’ve had every advantage and many privileges and you’re 32. What the hell is taking you so long to win something significant?”

Ngoepe plays a sport that has almost no presence where he was raised and has moved to a country that doesn’t understand much about the world he came from, as a feature on him by a website there published in May made clear, telling its readers that “ … baseball’s popularity in South Africa ranks somewhere behind soccer, cricket, rugby, field hockey and something called netball …”.

Whatever. Ngoepe clearly has stickability. But he averages only .181 in 82 plate appearances for Pittsburgh and Toronto, where he was traded in December, and where he had only one hit and struck out a dozen times in 18 appearances.

Does that make him any less successful than Anderson? Does it mean we should pretend he doesn’t exist, like someone who looms at your car window at a red robot? No on both counts, according to this reporter.

But we’ll all have our own opinions. So here’s a fact: Ngoepe has hit 45 home runs in the minor leagues, two of them for the Bisons this year.

Put that in your headline and publish it.

De Bruyn delivers the only number that matters

Runs? They’re not nearly as important as balls faced for batsmen in the sub-continent.

TMG Digital

TELFORD VICE in Cape Town

OF all the facts and figures that will swirl into the consciousness in the wake of South Africa crashing to another comprehensive defeat in Sri Lanka, one matters most.

Here it is: Theunis de Bruyn faced only 61 fewer deliveries in South Africa’s second innings in Colombo than the rest of his teammates combined.

It matters less that slow left-armer Rangana Herath took 6/98, and less that Sri Lanka won by 199 runs with a day and more to spare.

Even less that South Africa have now lost just three of their past 19 series on the road, a story of success that goes back almost 11 years.

It’s more important that all of those reversals have happened in less than three years, but De Bruyn’s feat still towers.

“He showed it’s possible to get runs in these conditions,” Faf du Plessis told a television interviewer after the Lankans wrapped up their win inside an hour after lunch on Monday.

Runs? They’re not nearly as important as balls faced for batsmen in the sub-continent.

Alastair Cook is the world champion. Or at least the non-sub-continental world champion.

No-one who has played Tests for teams other than India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or, these days, Afghanistan has faced more than the Englishman’s total of 6 053.

Jacques Kallis and Hashim Amla are next on the list with 4 672 and 4 309.

No foreign player has had more than Cook’s 55 innings in Asia no scored more runs than his 2 710, but Ricky Ponting had four more trips to the crease there Kallis — and scored fewer 169 runs than the South African.

Ah, runs: De Bruyn made 101, his maiden century in his 12th Test innings.

He offered one chance, to the 35th delivery he faced, when he swept off-spinner Dilruwan Perera onto his pad and sent what would have been a fine catch towards leg gully — who leapt and palmed the ball into the outfield.

Four deliveries after reaching his century with a tickled four to fine leg off Herath, De Bruyn shouldered arms to a ball that left the bowler’s hand looking like it would turn away from the right-hander and gave no hint as it travelled through the air that it would not.

But it didn’t zig after pitching. Instead it zagged towards De Bruyn, whose bat remained high and mighty even as the clatter behind him told him, rudely, his day was done.

Herath, who has added a layer of grey hair to his boep to make it only more obvious that he is a kindly uncle teaching the kids a thing or two in a game of park cricket, unleashed another of the imploding reverse fist pumps that serve as his quaint celebration.   

For the rest of his innings, De Bruyn was the epitome of the patience and discipline South Africa have sorely lacked.

He did not play in the first Test in Galle, but of those who did Dean Elgar and Temba Bavuma showed that they had, in the modern player’s phrase, “taken learnings”: Elgar was there for 80 balls in the second innings and Bavuma for 98.

De Bruyn? He faced 232 — more than twice as many as any of his compatriots in all four of South Africa’s innings in the series.

Whichever way you look at it, that’s a big number.

Was old bad blood between SuperSport and CSA suits why T20GL failed?

“The reality is Imtiaz [Patel] doesn’t like Haroon [Lorgat] and he doesn’t respect him.”

Sunday Times*

TELFORD VICE in Cape Town

THERE was either US$13-million or US$17-million worth of difference between Cricket South Africa’s (CSA) vision for their T20 league and SuperSport’s last year, but that might not be why the original attempt to tap into the game’s fastest growing market foundered.

For that, we need to go back 10 years, when Haroon Lorgat and Imtiaz Patel were both in the running to replace Malcolm Speed as the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) chief executive.

“The ICC approached Imtiaz and asked him to apply, and they wanted to give him the job,” a Patel confidante said. “In fact, [then ICC chair] David Morgan jumped the gun and said live on Sky that Imtiaz was the ICC’s next chief executive. But Imtiaz had turned them down.

“He was on a plane to Cape Town to meet with executives from Naspers [which ultimately owns SuperSport] when Morgan appeared on Sky, and it could have have been a very awkward situation — ‘You’re here talking to us but we see you’re leaving …’

“Imtiaz went to Haroon and said, ‘I don’t want this job — do you want it?’ Haroon said he did.”

Asked to confirm that version of events, Lorgat did not respond.

So Patel continued his career as a SuperSport executive. Lorgat cracked the nod with the ICC and was appointed in April 2008.

It only complicated the relationship between CSA and SuperSport when Lorgat was appointed the former’s chief executive in July 2013. By then Patel was MultiChoice South Africa’s group chief executive.

But the bitterness between them has lingered all these years — and perhaps was a factor in SuperSport balking at how much money CSA wanted in rights fees for the tournament, which was postponed in October and is set to be played next season.

“Imtiaz said outright he wasn’t going to pay what CSA wanted as long as Haroon was around,” a source close to the process said.

The failure to secure a broadcaster and sponsors, and the consequent impending losses, duly prompted CSA to pull the plug on the competition in October — weeks before the first ball was to have been bowled. 

Depending on who you believe, Lorgat’s hasty departure from CSA in September was either punishment for what had gone wrong or carefully engineered by his adversaries.

CSA’s next step was to negotiate an equity partnership with SuperSport for a new tournament, which has angered the owners of the original franchises enough for three of the eight to threaten legal action. 

And all because a couple of egos got in the way of making a deal.

“It’s a sexy angle but it’s not the truth,” a source who knows both Lorgat and Patel said.

He said Patel, now the chief executive for video entertainment at Naspers, was no longer involved in rights negotiations for sport events.

But there was more to it than that.

“The reality is Imtiaz doesn’t like Haroon and he doesn’t respect him,” the source said. “But you often end up working with people you don’t like. And that’s not why the rights negotiations for the T20GL failed — they simply couldn’t reach consensus on the numbers.”

What those numbers were is not confirmed. One theory is that CSA wanted US$15-million and that SuperSport offered US$2-million, another that CSA asked for between US$20 and US$25-million and that SuperSport came back with US$6 to US$8-million.

Again depending on who you believe, that’s a degree of difference either US$13-million or US$17-million wide: a long way on both counts.

But SuperSport’s misgivings about the competition went beyond the financials.

“They had doubts about some of the owners,” a broadcasting insider said. “They didn’t know whether they were fronting money-laundering operations or were involved in match-fixing.

“And they couldn’t understand why the franchise owners were foreign. If the money goes back into South African cricket it goes into the product, which would lead to better standards in the domestic game — which have been poor for years — and that would make SuperSport happy because it helps them sell subscriptions.”

He said SuperSport had indemnified themselves against legal action — “Their stance is they were not part of that venture” — and that they were satisfied that the smaller scale competition scheduled to be played next summer was a better fit for the South African cricket landscape.

“As long as the Proteas are available and you have good overseas players, not those at the end of their careers just playing for the paycheque, you will have a good tournament.”  

And another thing: “SuperSport have been very impressed with [new CSA chief executive] Thabang Moroe. He’s attracted criticism but he rolls up his sleeves and gets to work.”

There would, then, seem to be fewer degrees of separation between CSA and SuperSport than in the past.

* A shorter version of this article was published in the Sunday Times on July 22, 2018. 

Leading Edge: Earth to SA – you’re not in India anymore

Kensington Oval harbours “the fastest pitch in the Caribbean”. But a snail isn’t speedy because it’s the first one to reach the lettuce. 

Sunday Times

TELFORD VICE in Cape Town

PITCHES do strange things to people. Some they turn into sages whose every word is accepted as gospel. Others they cripple with clumsiness. Still others are elevated to the status of minor gods by their relationship with the 22 yards of grass and clay that are central to the way every match unfolds.

Considering a cricket pitch is rarely what it seems, it’s not difficult to understand why.

In England, particularly early in the summer, you can hear the grass growing, mean and green, on every pitch. In later months an English pitch the colour of straw makes the hearts of batsmen soar and those of bowlers sink.

In Asia it takes an experienced eye to tell the difference between pitches in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, where the clay is, apparently, a darker shade of grey. But they’re all slow and they all turn. Except at M. Chinnaswamy stadium in Bangalore, where what looks like the first pitch of an English summer offers an emerald expanse to all who would bat and bowl on it.

In West Indies, pitches tend to be cadavers. As in dead. You will hear that Kensington Oval in Bridgetown, Barbados harbours “the fastest pitch in the Caribbean”. This is true. But a snail isn’t speedy because it’s the first one to reach the lettuce. The pitch at Sabina Park in Kingston, Jamaica has a disconcerting characteristic: it shines like a mirror.

You might have noticed that “pitch” and “pitches” appear nine times in the 232 words above this paragraph. None of those words is “wicket” — which, in the physical sense, is made of wood. It is never made of grass and clay: that’s a pitch.

Add that to the strange things pitches do to people. They turn otherwise easygoing cricket writers into pedants.

The South Africans in Sri Lanka have shown themselves no less susceptible than the rest of us to this dangerous tendency.

The XI that lost the first test in Galle last week contained only four of the side that went down to India in Delhi in the last match of that unhappy, for South Africa, series in November and December 2015.

But they batted as if they were still fighting off the ghosts of a drama — Temba Bavuma described dealing with more fielders near the crease than in the outfield in Delhi as, “Part of the theatre of test cricket” — in which the Indians bent the rules and conventions of pitch preparation to ensure the visitors would not add the test series to the one-day and T20 rubbers they had already won. 

Galle was nothing like that. It was a Galle pitch, sommer net so. But South Africa’s batsmen floundered, albeit in the face of fine bowling by the Lankan spinners, to totals of 126 and 73 and, inevitably, a crushing defeat.

The second test in Colombo has ended in another triumph for the home side, and there are five one-day internationals to come.

Somebody needs to tell South Africa they aren’t in India anymore.

Another day another struggle for SA

“We haven’t covered ourselves in glory.” – Ottis Gibson

 TMG Digital

TELFORD VICE in Cape Town

HANG on. Are we watching the highlights of last week’s game? We aren’t: again Sri Lanka’s tail wagged like a spaniel’s. Again South Africa’s batting was a tale of failure to come to terms with the conditions.

Again your Saturday morning would have been better spent shopping for tile grouting than watching a fine team crumble.  

And again Sri Lanka will win, weather and miracle permitting, this time to take the series 2-0.

In Galle last Saturday, South Africa were beaten by 278 runs before tea on the third day.

In Colombo this Saturday, after two days of the second test, they look on course for a similar fate.

Sri Lanka were 155/3 in their second innings at stumps, a lead of 365: already, on current form, way too many for South Africa to seriously contemplate chasing.

Seventy-four runs of the Lankans’ runs came in a last-wicket stand between Akila Dananjaya and Rangana Herath, who stopped a slide of five wickets for 41 runs to hold up South Africa’s progress for more than an hour. 

Perhaps they should have batted for longer: the visitors were dismissed for 124 in 34.5 overs, or less than two-and-a-half hours in which they didn’t look anything like the team who have the best record of all non-Asian sides in the subcontinent.

As far below themselves as the South Africans played, they were slung a couple of inadvertent insults by their hosts.

Herath, the masterful left-arm spinner who has been his side’s key bowler since Muttiah Muralitharan retired eight years ago, was needed for just nine overs.

Sri Lanka’s captain, Suranga Lakmal, the only seamer in their XI, didn’t get a bowl. Nice work if you can get it: batting at No. 10, he made a four-ball duck.

Saturday’s shambolic batting means South Africa, as a team, have scored six fewer runs in the series than Dimuth Karunaratne, the Sri Lankan opener.

So, exactly who put the skids under a line-up that, apparently, harbours three of the game’s top 20 ranked batsmen? 

Off-spinner Dilruwan Perera, who added a haul of 4/40 to the match figures of 10/78 he claimed in Galle, and Dananjaya — another off-spinner, who also bowls leg breaks and googlies — who took 5/52 in only his third test.

“Another tough day,” Ottis Gibson said in a television interview. “We haven’t covered ourselves in glory.”

Happily Gibson wasn’t talking about everyone. Keshav Maharaj’s 9/129 is second only to the 9/113 Hugh Tayfield took against England at the Wanderers in February 1957 as the best performance by a South Africa bowler in a test innings.

Thing is, the left-arm orthodox Maharaj the magnificent is the only specialist spinner in a South Africa side who are struggling to compete in conditions that are overtly, but not unfairly, tuned for turn.

With left-arm wrist spinner Tabraiz Shamsi and leg spinner Shaun von Berg wearing non-players’ bibs and looking on impotently from the dugout, was Gibson ready to admit the South Africans got that wrong? 

“Looking at where we are now you would probably say yes,” he said. “It’s not the best decision we’ve made.”

Damn straight.

It doesn’t happen for Steyn, but it does for Maharaj

In all South Africa’s 427 Tests only six bowlers have had a better day at the office than the left-arm spinner.

TMG Digital

TELFORD VICE in Cape Town

IT didn’t happen for Dale Steyn in Colombo on Friday. He huffed and he puffed and he bowled 15 overs with a lot of heart and soul but without taking the one wicket he needed to become South Africa’s champion Test bowler.

It did happen, in spades, for Keshav Maharaj, who took 8/116: not only his career-best performance but the best by any bowler — seam, spin, whatever — in the 14 Tests South Africa have played in Sri Lanka as well as the best by a spinner from any foreign country on the Asian island.

In all South Africa’s 427 Tests only six bowlers have had a better day at the office than the left-arm spinner. Since re-admission, one — Allan Donald claimed 8/71 against Zimbabwe in Harare in October 1995.

Maharaj had plenty to do with the home side being curbed to 277/9 at stumps on the first day of the second Test, which South Africa must win to level the series.

As brilliantly as he bowled, taking his trademark discipline and tenacity to new levels, Maharaj had help from four dodgy sweep shots, wonderful catches by Quinton de Kock, Kagiso Rabada and Aiden Markram, and a pitch that made even Markram’s occasional off-spin look like it had been fired from the arm Muttiah Muralitharan.

That Markram bowled at all, nevermind as many as seven overs, and that Dean Elgar sent down three overs of left-arm ordinary, tells its own story.

South Africa bolstered their batting by including Theunis de Bruyn at the expense of Vernon Philander, who was always going to be the bowler to make way after being entrusted with only 11 overs in the first Test in Galle.

That made sense, not least because the visitors were shot out for 126 and 73 in that match.

What didn’t add up was South Africa’s other change — Lungi Ngidi for Tabraiz Shamsi.

The left-arm wrist spinner took 3/91 and 1/37 in Galle, and then returned home following the death of his father.

He was back in Sri Lanka in time to play in Colombo and was listed as available, but somehow he was left out in favour of a fast bowler in conditions the South Africans must have known would be tailored for slow poison.

It would be understandable if Shamsi was too unsettled by the tragedy in his family to be able to give of his best.

But if that was the case leg spinner Shaun von Berg should have cracked the nod to become, at 31, the 100th player to make his Test debut for South Africa since re-admission.

Instead the visitors will have to make do with Maharaj, who took the second new ball ahead of Steyn in the last two overs of the day, and odds and sods like Markram and Elgar.

What price Maharaj becoming the second bowler to take nine wickets in an innings for South Africa, which is currently the sole preserve of off-spinner Hugh Tayfield and his 9/113 against England at the Wanderers in February 1957?

“I haven’t thought that far yet; I could do with a massive meal and putting my feet up,” Maharaj told Shaun Pollock — who still holds half the wicket-taking record with Steyn — in a post-play television interview.

Maharaj bowled 32 overs, or more than a third of the total. Tayfield, who sent down 37 eight-ball overs for his haul against England all those 61 years ago, would have known how Maharaj felt.

And he would have ended that massive meal with a stiff drink and a smoke.

‘We need to trust our defence.’ – Faf du Plessis

TMG Digital

TELFORD VICE in Cape Town

STARTING with their visit to Pakistan in October 2007, South Africa have played 18 Test series away or on neutral grounds — and lost only two of them.

In both those series they lost the first match of the rubber, as they did against Sri Lanka in Galle last week.

So history says South Africa’s record could take another dent in Colombo, where the second Test starts on Friday.

Both times South Africa have finished on the wrong end of the equation in those 18 rubbers, in India and November and December 2015 and in England last July and August, conditions have been unusually dominant factors.

In India the Nagpur groundsman cheated South Africa out of a fair shot at victory — the pitch was rated “poor” by the International Cricket Council — and the other surfaces weren’t much better.

In England the visitors lost a battle keenly fought by both sets of batsmen struggling on pitches so damnably difficult to come to terms with that only three centuries were scored in four matches.

In Galle last week South Africa gave the pitch too much respect and in the process crashed to totals of 126 and 73, and with that defeat by 278 runs in less than three days.

Besides themselves, the architects of South Africa’s defeat were the Lankans’ trident of spinners, left-armer Rangana Herath, off-spinner Dilruwan Perera and left-arm wrist spinner Lakshan Sandakan — who claimed all but three of the visitors’ 20 wickets.

“In the first Test we were quite off the boil in a lot of areas,” Faf du Plessis admitted to reporters in Colombo on Thursday.

“We have been also a team that starts late unfortunately. Then we start making better decisions.

“Hopefully we can do that in this test match although we know its going to be tough.

“In the sub-continent drawing a series is as good as winning a series. It’s tough and that’s what the best teams do.”

South Africa have been among those teams since making their Asian debut in Sri Lanka in August 1993, winning seven series there and drawing and losing six each.

In terms of matches in the sub-continent, South Africa have won and lost 15 each and drawn 16.

Friday’s game, then, is important in several respects. And the key to the way it will pan out is how South Africa’s batsmen handle the Lankan spinners.

“The thing that let us down in the first Test was that we didn’t trust our defence well enough,” Du Plessis said.

“The important part of playing spin in Test cricket is trusting your defence.

“Obviously we need to try and put pressure back on the spinners as well with what you are doing.

“The guys worked really hard on their gameplan and trying to be positive against spin, which is an element of playing spinners well.

“But you have to also trust your defence, so there’s two parts to it. That was the difference between how Sri Lanka played spin and how we played spin — especially Dimuth Karunaratne [who scored 158 not out and 60], who didn’t take too many risks; he just played with good defence. If you take him away I think both teams struggled to play spin well.”

The Lankan batsmen are not Du Plessis’ problem. It’s the South Africans he needs to worry about.

“There was a carelessness about our batting,” he said. “In test cricket you have to learn how to put a bowler under pressure.

“Once again I take the example of Dimuth as to how he played. As a captain I wanted him to take risks but he didn’t take risks.”

Du Plessis said South Africa had yet to finalise their team, but indicated that they would play an extra batsman.

That could mean a quiet few days ahead for Vernon Philander, who bowled only 11 overs and took just one wicket in the first Test.*

Along with everything else that happened in Galle, Dale Steyn equalled Shaun Pollock as the highest Test wicket-taker for South Africa.

What might Steyn’s reward from his captain be the next time he strikes?

“I’ll give him a kiss on the cheek.”

* Philander was dropped in favour of batsman Theunis de Bruyn and left-arm wrist spinner Tabraiz Shamsi replaced by fast bowler Lungi Ngidi.