‘We played a warm-up game which was a flat wicket – it didn’t spin – so you have to give credit to Sri Lanka for, I suppose, doing that well,’ said Du Plessis ruefully during the post-match press conference after Sri Lanka had humiliated South Africa in Galle.
‘There’s some learning in that for us to take even when we’re playing in South African conditions. The nets that we’ve been batting on have not been spinning at all. So we could have come a month earlier but if you’re practising on facilities that don’t spin, you’re not going to get what you get out there,’ added Du Plessis, whose side had to face up to batting last after losing the toss.
‘I’m a big fan of taking away the toss,’ said Du Plessis. ‘I think even in South Africa you’ll still prepare the conditions the same way that you are preparing them now, (but by scrapping the toss) you try and bring some balance. In home conditions, teams will still win the majority of games, but I think you do even it out a little bit more. I think over the last two or three years away-records have definitely gone down, and games are finishing a lot sooner than (they) used to.’
In defence of this statement, he pointed out that when he started playing Test cricket, scores of 400 and 500 were being ratcheted up regularly, but now even in South Africa, Tests seldom stretch to the end of day four.
What Du Plessis didn’t mention was that batsmen are scoring with greater urgency and taking far more risks earlier in their innings, which is leading to runs being scored quicker but also wickets falling faster. That is how cricket is evolving, but Test-quality batters still need to cultivate the ability to bat for long periods of time when the situation requires because, as in Galle, that can be the difference between victory and defeat.
A quality batsman should be able to attack every ball in search of boundaries in white-ball cricket but also be capable of building an innings with care in a Test match. It’s a mixture of preparation, application and patience, but all three were lacking in the Proteas dressing room in Galle.
‘Every batsman will have his own game plan that he’s worked on for the last two months leading up to the series. There’s not a team game plan, so whatever works for you that’s going to put pressure back on the bowler,’ explained Du Plessis. Sadly, there was less than zero pressure placed on the Sri Lankan bowlers through the steady stream of Proteas wickets that kept falling.
Spin bowlers love nothing more than to see batsmen playing expansive strokes and hitting against the line – their eyes visibly light up because it increases their chances of taking wickets. South Africa’s ‘non-game plan game-plan’ was, in fact, helping to reduce any pressure on the Sri Lanka bowlers.
‘The quality of the spin is going to get wickets on day three and four,’ stressed Du Plessis and, while it’s true that the Sri Lankans bowled well, only an eternal optimist could say that South Africa was actually bowled out on day three. They instead threw their wickets away or gave them away with defensive strokes that the batters will know simply weren’t good enough for players of their calibre.
‘The thinking behind the batting was just to try and put some pressure back on the bowling because they don’t give you anything. If you just sit there the whole day then you’re also not going to score runs,’ explained Du Plessis.
That’s a fair point in general but, in the context of this past Test match, it’s completely hollow. South Africa still had two days left to fill with runs, and if they had the strength of purpose to guts it out for even one more day they would almost certainly have found the runs they needed to win the Test – and have a chance of taking the series.
Plain and simple, the batters were at fault for not being prepared mentally and not having the patience required at Test level.
The challenge of batting on the subcontinent
Du Plessis did offer some interesting insight into the challenges of coming in to bat in the subcontinent, saying that when you lose a wicket the ‘next five overs becomes tricky… and you need to make sure you get through that’.
Sadly, with that comment, Faf shot himself (and his teammates) in the foot. On the one hand, he backs positive batting by saying that there’s no point in retreating into your shell and trying to bat all day because ‘you’re not going to score runs’. In the next breath, however, he highlights the challenges of the first five overs batting against spin in the sub-continent.
Let’s look at the numbers. South Africa’s top six batsmen only passed 30 balls faced (five overs worth of batting) in an innings on four occasions out of 12 innings (see below), and two of those innings were within six overs worth of balls faced. Faf is suggesting that his batsmen should be looking to survive for the first five to six overs… yet he and his team-mates were playing expansively well before that mark.
I’m all for granting team-mates some latitude to play their own way and to their strengths, but there comes a point where a team has to have some degree of tactics and a shared game plan. My reckoning is that when they were 3-13 in the first innings and 3-24 in the second innings that the game plan should have been to heed Faf’s advice for each batsman to just survive the first five overs. Yet most of our players looked like they were in somewhat of a rush at the crease.
Where is the patience needed to build an innings and win a Test match?
Balls faced by South Africa’s top six in Galle
|Batter||1st innings||2nd innings|
|Faf du Plessis||88||3|
|Quinton de Kock||8||9|
Batting is a difficult art and facing spin bowling can be really tough, especially on Sri Lanka’s own pitches. We know this, so this isn’t a cheap shot from the comfy chairs. These are the best of the best, trained professionals whose lives are dedicated to honing their craft, raising their game, preparing in minute detail, and applying heroic levels of application and patience in order to achieve their goals.
They should expect more from themselves and they should offer no excuses for such failures. Take it on the chin and get well soon, guys!
I made a ‘prediction’ on Facebook at the start of the South African second innings that Aiden Markram and Temba Bavuma would be our kingpins in the second innings. Predictions are mental candy floss, of course, but, at the same time if you don’t practice positive thinking then everything in life will seem impossible.
Remember defending 117 against Australia in Sydney in 1994?
Chasing 434 in 50 overs against Australia at the Wanderers in 2006?
For 24 balls on Saturday morning, I saw signs of crystal ball greatness as Markram and Bavuma looked to be up for the task, before the latter fell to a sharp turner and, admittedly, not the best defensive stroke. Markram remained undeterred and had the look of a man digging himself in for two days at the crease. For 45 balls the murky clouds of my crystal ball were clearing up. I saw a man who wanted to win the match for South Africa… and who knew how to go about it.
Then, facing his 46th delivery, Markram seemed to hear the cavalry’s horns blaring in his ears and he charged down the pitch, like Dean Elgar, and was stumped, like Elgar – with both a long way from home. For all the grit of his first 45 balls, this was a truly horrendous way to end an innings… especially when you are four wickets down and your team is struggling with just 32 runs on the board.
One defense no doubt waiting to pounce is that retreating into your shell encourages the fielders to swarm around your bat. A swarm of close fielders brings with it numerous challenges, but if you’re a Test-quality batsman then your duty is to front up to tough tasks. On the plus side, having three or four fielders around the bat opens up plenty of places to push singles and keep the scoreboard rolling. In so doing, you also push the pressure back onto the bowlers.
Such a tactic requires no risks, although it does demand great skill to defend against good bowling with helmeted fielders waiting to pounce. That becomes great Test cricket to watch and, no doubt, great cricket to play as well.
Test cricket is not about big bats sending fours and sixes to all parts of the field. There is plenty of time for that in white ball cricket. You don’t play ODIs or T20Is like a Test match so, for heaven’s sake, stop playing Tests like a limited-overs match.
Use the full five days… or even just four of them!
Heads must roll…
The temptation will be for heads to roll before the second Test, but that would be premature. Besides, using the chopping block often allows team management and the senior circle the chance to round up a scapegoat (or -goats) to shoulder the blame for a poor performance. This is a strong side, a good side, and in many ways they performed well at Galle. They didn’t look terrible with the bat at all, they just didn’t seem to value their wickets or display any patience when it mattered. That all boiled down to attitude… and that can change overnight.
The Proteas players should be red-faced after this dismal failure, but we all go through failures and dips of form in life, so I hope the selectors keep faith with this eleven and give them a chance to regroup, recoup and beat Sri Lanka in the second Test. Sri Lanka is there for the taking if Faf’s boys just man up and play with Protea pride.
Changes for the second Test
The only change I would make would be to bring Lungi Ngidi in to create a fierce three-prong pace attack with Dale Steyn and Kagiso Rabada. Steyn and Rabada looked really sharp in the first Test and had the batsmen hopping. Conditions didn’t quite suit Vernon Philander and, even though he was superb for South Africa with the bat, Ngidi might offer greater bite with the ball. Besides, let’s leave the responsibility of scoring runs to our top six and focus on the bowlers we need to roll Sri Lanka in the second Test so that there are fewer runs for the top six to score.
This would be a really tough call to make, as Philander did nothing wrong at Galle. I would love to see him as part of a four-man attack during the rest of the season, but to win the second Test our batsmen need to play proper Test cricket… and if Lungi is let loose alongside KG and DS it could create some real Proteas magic.
Victory in the second Test won’t heal the scars of Galle, but it will set the Proteas right for the rest of an important season ahead of the 2019 World Cup.
Main photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images