Sri Lankan cricketer Rangana Herath celebrates after taking the wicket of South African cricketer Temba Bavuma (unseen) during the 4th day's play in the 2nd test cricket match between Sri Lanka and South Africa at SSC International Cricket ground, Colombo, Sri Lanka on Monday 23 July 2018 (Photo by Tharaka Basnayaka/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

An Awry Subcontinental Sojourn: How Could South Africa Have Averted A Whitewash ?

Sweeps, humidity,cramps, edges falling short, dust kicking up, loud LBW calls, reversed decision reviews and a dogged contender for the longest innings to draw the Test and perhaps save the team a few blushes….seems like a recipe for a Test in the subcontinent. This was certainly the case for South Africa’s tour of Sri Lanka.

Add the luck factor and delaying the inevitable, you pretty much have scripted every other Test series these days. Talking about luck, none other than Dean Elgar can avow about taking chances in life. He walked to the crease from the dressing room, not once but twice after being dismissed on two no-balls off Dilruwan Perera. Also a dropped chance that wasn’t to be…. three strikes and not out.

The sense of relief on his face said it all but unfortunately for him, those reprieves didn’t account for substantial runs. The South African batsmen brought out sweeps and reverse sweeps to tackle the spinning trio of Rangana Herath, Dilruwan Perera and Akila Dananjaya but they also fell prey to them via the same technique.

“If you can’t play them, turn around and smack them out of the park.” A common T20 shot paraphrased but that’s what Temba Bavuma largely employed to contend with Dananjaya’s off breaks on a raging rank turner at SSC, Colombo. He simply didn’t find runs off his premeditated sweeps but held fort with Theunis De Bruyn to see off the day.

Facing spin on rank turners has been the Achilles’ heel of many a visiting teams but looking at the brighter side, Theunis De Bruyn has finally stepped up and was the key man in the second innings of the second Test, in an otherwise dismal batting display by the rest of the contingent. In Keshav Maharaj, they have found a frontline spinner who can pick wickets in all conditions. He’s only 22 Tests old and spinners , as they say, are like wines, the older they get, the better they offer.

So how could have South Africa averted a tumultuous procession of wickets and missed chances? Clearly, they didn’t turn up well-prepared and a little thought could have ensured some credibility to a performance where most of the players looked at sea.
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Skipper Faf Du Plessis conceded in the post-match interview that playing two spinners could have been a match-winning move because apart from Maharaj, nobody else shouldered the load on a pitch that turned just enough to spin the series in Sri Lanka’s way.

Secondly, batsmen Aiden Markram, Dean Elgar, Hashim Amla and De Bruyn were engaged in a County Championship stint in England just before the Sri Lanka tour , meaning that they were playing in conditions that supported little to no spin. Such game time can clearly be deemed to be unfit for preparation for a tour to the subcontinent.

While the senior batsmen failed , young opener Aiden Markram averaged just 8 across five innings (includes a first ball duck in the practice game) and perhaps can make way for Heinrich Klaasen , who has created ripples with his effective spin tackling techniques against the Indian wrist spinners which helped him earn a lucrative IPL contract this year.

Surprisingly, Markram wasn’t a part of the spin camp in Mumbai held in the first week of May. In fact, from the current lot, only Temba Bavuma was picked for the week-long camp.

While all the “could have beens” be the missing pieces of the puzzle, the South African team management could have taken a leaf out of the preparatory handbook of Australia, who had an intense, laborious week at the ICC Academy in Dubai where they netted out hours sharpening their skills , adapting to new conditions and trying out various combinations through an intrasquad match ahead of their Indian Test tour wherein they managed to win the first Test and drew the third one.

Dean Elgar said that the hosts were “street-smart” in denying them preparation on pitches that were similar to those they encountered in the Test series. Training in a neutral venue like UAE makes even more sense where the pitches offer variety of unbiased conditions.

One of the factors that could be ruled out is the one that involves toss. Du Plessis said he’s a “big fan of taking away the toss”. Quite simply, if you haven’t mastered the technique to battle it out, it doesn’t matter whether you are bowling first or batting.

For a team that punches above its weight more often than not need to push as many players as possible to participate in the ‘A’ series with youngsters being backed , in a bid to provide a long term solution to South Africa’s spin ailments in the subcontinent.

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