• What would Sir Alex do?

    Can you imagine for one terrifying second, what Sir Alex Ferguson would have done if he had been in charge of the Proteas in Sri Lanka? SIMON LEWIS ponders.

    I think I can, and even Kim Jong-un, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin would be quaking at the prospect! Sir Alex was someone who didn’t pull his punches, not even when it came to the biggest global superstars on his team… and look at the results he achieved. Kicking boots and throwing hairdryers are excessive, but to beat the best in the world means players have to elevate themselves way, way above the norm.

    There was little evidence of that in Sri Lanka.

    Let’s start with Dean Elgar, who batted in the second innings at Colombo with the look of a punch-drunk boxer whose trainer had forgotten to throw the towel into the ring.

    Elgar is a seasoned, 51-Test veteran, a champion batsman and a firm favourite with Proteas fans after filling the tough opener’s role so well, but his batting was abysmal in Sri Lanka. He did not live up to the high standards he has set for himself and his stroke selection and execution in the series was not what we have become accustomed to from the man we titled ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ in the July-Sept 2017 issue of SA Cricket magazine.

    It’s unfair to focus the spotlight on Elgar because, in a two-Test series, even the best batsmen can struggle to make an impact. Four innings pass quickly if your form is off or your luck is out, and against the new ball (whether it is delivered with speed or spin), your job is far from easy. The problem in Sri Lanka was that four of the Proteas’ top six were lean on runs, and two others fared only slightly better. That would qualify as an epidemic.

    What went wrong in Sri Lanka? Perhaps Elgar’s struggles might offer a clue to the rest of the side’s failures.

    First Test, first innings: Elgar played from his crease and tried to angle a ball to leg that was turning away from him, and he was caught in the slips.

    Second innings: Elgar raced down the wicket and was stumped in ungainly fashion.

    Second Test, first innings: Elgar again played from his crease and tried to push a ball to leg that was turning away from him – caught in the slips again.

    Second innings: Elgar played a number of loose strokes, was twice out off no-balls, was dropped after skying a rushed sweep shot before finally being trapped leg before wicket after backing away from a full-length delivery that held no demons and could have been handled with a solid forward defensive stroke.

    Easy to say with hindsight, but none of those deliveries were wicket-taking balls, although his dismissal in the second innings in Colombo was to a challenging – but not unplayable – delivery. Each of these four dismissals could have been prevented with a simple forward defence. Dot ball. Bowler goes back to his mark, and on we bat. Yet Elgar felt compelled to push for runs in situations when there was no reason for him to feel rushed and there was no added pressure from the bowlers or fielders.

    Such dismissals can happen to any player, but by innings four of the series, surely his teammates or the coaching staff could have stepped in to suggest he take it easy and play it straight for a while. Grit it out. Perhaps Elgar was so fired up that he decided to take on the bowlers with positive batting, or maybe he thought that the best way to get out of a mini-slump would be to attack the bowling.

    Was it wrong for Elgar to play like that? That’s open to interpretation, but what matters is the result of his efforts. If his positive strokeplay had come off, he would have been a hero, and quite rightly. Failure becomes a problem for the player as well as the team and, when you take into account the rest of the team’s struggles, I would argue that Elgar should have been advised to ease off on the positivity, especially after having three lucky escapes in the fourth innings in Colombo. A typical Elgar century would have made victory a real possibility for the Proteas. Sir Alex wouldn’t have had a problem telling Elgar to tone it down… but in Sri Lanka, the responsibility to tell the Proteas batters how to play fell on the shoulders of coach Ottis Gibson and batting coach Dale Benkenstein.

    Ferguson was a decent footballer, but he was no Ronaldo, while the highlights of Jose Mourinho’s playing career could be written on a matchstick, yet both have been incredibly successful coaches. Pep Guardiola was a great player and a great coach, but probably most great coaches weren’t great players. Gibson and Benkenstein were not ‘great’ cricketers, but they were highly accomplished and talented cricketers who achieved at the top level. With their cricketing pedigrees, they should form an incredible partnership for the Proteas.

    It didn’t work in Sri Lanka, though, but I hope they dig deep to ask why. Benkenstein never played a Test match and Gibson played just two. Does this affect the players’ mindset? Can Benkenstein do a Fergie with a Proteas batsman or will the attitude be, ‘Agh, what do you know, Benkie?’

    This team is filled with great players and a great spirit, and their two coaches are excellent men with great cricketing brains. On the evidence of the Sri Lanka Test series, though, they do not seem to have worked out their relationship with the Proteas players, and that’s a problem. It’s also something that Gibson and Benkenstein can take charge of by being strong leaders and asserting their influence over the team. This is a tough thing to do and can take time, but it also requires both of them to back themselves and take a risk by putting their reputations on the line. It’s a risk worth taking, though, as their players need their guidance and their strength to help them to achieve their full potential.

    Lessons learned   

    In the first innings in Colombo, Theunis de Bruyn gave his wicket away unnecessarily, pushing out at a ball that would have missed a second set of stumps. This happens to batsmen, especially early in their innings. In his second knock, though, he scored a magnificent century. Without a doubt, he would have thought long and hard about his dismissal and used his first innings error of judgement as motivation to build his innings and score runs the second time around. As a more inexperienced member of the side, his teammates and coaches would have given him some advice or insight, but how is it that De Bruyn could have this turnaround after just one failure, while his teammates in the series had numerous failures that they kept repeating?

    Do Gibson and Benkenstein have the strength to intervene with the players when things aren’t going right, or are the players all left to develop their own game plan? What about Elgar’s teammates and the non-striker? Here was a player who had ‘Match-Winner in Colombo’ written all over him, yet he ended up falling way short of his own mark.

    Batsmen develop incredible instinct and skill over years of playing and practising against some of the best bowlers in the world. They are raised to the level of Gods in terms of their ability and their craft, but they remain mere mortals subject to doubts, over-confidence or lack of confidence. Add to this the immense pressure they are under from their opposition, as well as the millions watching on TV, and you can see why someone like Sir Alex kicked players up the backside. Not because he was a tyrant who wanted to teach players a lesson and put them in their place, but because players need that ‘reset kick’ to get back on track in what is an immensely challenging physical and mental battle.

    Players are so wrapped up in the instinct of competing against the world’s best players that they cannot always see the wood for the trees. That’s exactly why the role of the coach is so crucial.

    While respect is an important part of any relationship, it serves no one if we all walk on eggshells. Winners like Sir Alex don’t walk on eggshells – he cracks them and then he scrambles them!

    The reverse sweep has become a part of the modern batsman’s armoury, and it is a highly effective shot when played to the right ball. I wonder if Sir Alex would have been happy for the Proteas batsmen to be using it so early in their innings in both Tests?

    South Africa’s top run-scorers in the Test series

    Player Inns Runs HS Ave BF SR 100 50
    F du Plessis 4 105 49 26.25 155 67.74 0 0
    TB de Bruyn 2 104 101 52.00 240 43.33 1 0
    T Bavuma  4 93 63 23.25 168 55.35 0 1
    Q de Kock 4 53 32 13.25 60 88.33 0 0
    D Elgar 4 49 37 12.25 125 39.2 0 0
    VD Philander 2 40 22* 40.00 124 32.25 0 0
    HM Amla  4 40 19 10.00 114 35.08 0 0
    AK Markram  4 40 19 10.00 97 41.23 0 0


    • South Africa’s top three (Elgar, Aiden Markram and Hashim Amla) scored a combined total of 129 runs in the series at an average of just 10.75 runs per innings. Their runs total was just 12 more than Sri Lanka’s third-best batsman, Angelo Mathews (117 runs), in the series.
    • Quinton de Kock, Elgar, Amla and Markram (182 runs combined at an average of 11.38) scored just 21 runs more than Sri Lanka’s second-best batter, Danushka Gunathilaka (161 runs, ave 40.25). 
    • It’s not just the fact that the Sri Lankans scored more runs, it’s the way they went about it, and how the South Africans didn’t defend for their lives as each match situation got worse. The middle order is the safety valve of an innings, and the fact that Faf du Plessis (67.74) and De Kock (88.33) had the highest strike rates of all batsmen in the series is indicative of the attitude of the Proteas batters. 

    How tough were the conditions?

    Numerous times during the Test series in Sri Lanka, the commentators remarked that the Proteas batsmen had been beaten or dismissed by balls that didn’t turn. Some balls were turning, yes, and a few turned quite substantially, of course, but a decent spin bowler will get some degree of spin on almost any pitch. It was not a devilish pitch for Test-quality batsmen to navigate, so why resort to loose strokeplay as your go-to way out of a tight spot?

    ‘There was some good bowling, but it’s by no means an unplayable surface,’ is how former Proteas skipper Kepler Wessels described South Africa’s first innings performance at Galle after the Proteas were bowled out for 126, their lowest-ever total in Sri Lanka.

    After 20 overs in their second dig in Colombo, South Africa were scoring at 3.57 runs per over, which was higher than the Sri Lankans in either of their innings. Why the rush? Sri Lanka had the upper hand and the benefit of home conditions, yet the Proteas batsmen looked determined to take more risks than their hosts with two days left to bat!

    That doesn’t sound like a great game plan.

    South Africa lost the second Test by 199 runs, but imagine if one of Elgar, Markram, Amla or Faf had scored a century, and two of the others had made thirties? That would have all but made up the shortfall of runs and the lower order would have been in a position to fight for an unforgettable victory. The Proteas had the ability to pull it off, which is all the more reason to ask what went wrong in order to prevent a repeat of their struggles?

    Luck plays a major part in cricket, and batting is unforgiving in that the smallest error can send you packing. So is that not even greater reason to give the Proteas the Sir Alex treatment? Not to break them down but, rather, to help them focus on the small details that make all the difference between single figures and triple figures.

    Temba Bavuma and De Bruyn showed that runs could be scored against the Sri Lankan bowlers… and on the dreaded fourth day of the Test as well. How was that possible? We had been led to believe day four and day five would be akin to sunbathing naked in Dante’s Inferno with only sunglasses and Factor Five for protection! Yet… the two players whose places are most in jeopardy in the side stuck it out and batted with the resolve (yes, as well as the positivity!) required to make the Sri Lankan bowlers jittery.

    Could it be that their teammates were too loose with their strokes as they do not fear losing their place in the side? I’m not suggesting that they are too big for their boots, but rather they have become so good as players that they have total confidence in their ability, as David Beckham at Manchester United would have had in his prime. That’s a good thing, but it’s also why you need a strong coach telling it to you straight when you need to hear it – whether you want to hear it or not.

    Leading batsmen in the Sri Lanka-South Africa Test series

    Player Inns Runs HS Ave BF SR 100 50
    FDM Karunaratne (SL) 4 356 158* 118.66 548 64.96 1 3
    MD Gunathilaka (SL) 4 161 61 40.25 271 59.4 0 2
    AD Mathews (SL) 4 117 71 29.25 267 43.82 0 1
    F du Plessis (SA) 4 105 49 26.25 155 67.74 0 0
    TB de Bruyn (SA) 2 104 101 52.00 240 43.33 1 0
    T Bavuma (SA) 4 93 63 23.25 168 55.35 0 1


    • Dimuth Karunaratne batted beautifully to score 356 runs in the series… which was one run more than South Africa’s top four batters scored combined (Du Plessis, De Bruyn, Bavuma and De Kock = 355 runs) and more than double the runs scored by the next most prolific run-scorer in the series, Karunaratne’s opening partner, Gunathilaka (161). 
    • Karunaratne showed what can be done when a batsman applies himself, but he had no special advantages. His Test average is a modest 37.28 after 99 innings, and his average on Sri Lanka pitches is 40.78. He’s a fine Test cricketer and was deservedly the Player of the Series, but let’s not think he had some special advantage in this series. He simply produced the goods when it counted, innings after innings. 

    Playing positively in Sri Lanka

    Prior to the first Test, Gibson said that ‘if we are going to win in these conditions, we have to be positive and we have to try in most situations to take the positive option’.

    Being positive is important, but there is a big difference between being positive at the crease and ‘chasing the dragon’, and it looked like the Proteas batters had their mind on the latter. In this case, white-ball cricket and fast, easy runs are the addiction the Proteas seem to crave.

    Sri Lanka scored at 3.24 runs an over in their first innings and 3.39 in the second. South Africa? The team under pressure in the series? With plenty of time to bat? First innings they scored at 3.55 and, as at close of play on day three, they had scored at 3.39 in the second innings (the innings ended with them on 3.33 runs per over).

    The Proteas seemed to be in such a hurry, but there was really no need to rush with two days left to play. So why the high-risk cricket? It’s not about saying to the batters ‘don’t sweep’, ‘don’t hook’ or ‘don’t hit over the top’… rather, it’s about highlighting the importance of making the correct choice of when to play each shot and then how they execute it. However, when your mindset has swung too far towards being positive, it makes it difficult to achieve this balance… just as being too negative leaves batters prone to being tied up by the bowlers.

    To be fair to the Proteas, we are talking very fine margins of error here, but this is even more reason for the coach and the batting coach to be in a position to guide their batters through the minefield of a Test match.

    Manchester United was one of the best teams in the world under Sir Alex… but he let his big-name stars know when they weren’t playing to their potential. Are the leaders in the Proteas side tough enough with the players? Do the Proteas demand enough of each other and push each other hard enough when the pressure is on?

    For Colombo to be happening after Galle, the obvious presumption is that the team leadership is either making bad tactical and strategic decisions or that some players are not following the team line. Why say this? Because I don’t buy that these talented players don’t have what it takes to have beaten Sri Lankan 2-0 in this series, rather than losing 2-0.

    It would have been a really rough, memorable fight, but De Bruyn and Bavuma proved it was possible with the bat, while Kagiso Rabada and Keshav Maharaj were outstanding with the ball.

    The question I’d like the Proteas batsmen to ask themselves is this: if Sir Alex had been your coach in Sri Lanka, would you have gone anywhere near the changeroom?

    The answer to that question might give Gibson and Benkenstein some food for thought about how they need to change their approach to getting the best out of a batting lineup that misfired dreadfully in Sri Lanka. Get it right and these guys will beat anyone who crosses their path in Test cricket as well as with the white ball… and those are the words Proteas fans need to hear as our date with World Cup destiny looms ever larger on the horizon.

    Photos: John Peters/Man Utd via Getty Images; Matthew Peters/Man Utd via Getty Images; Tharaka Basnayaka/NurPhoto via Getty Images; Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images

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    Simon Lewis