When AB de Villiers announced his retirement from international cricket shortly after the Indian Premier League, the first thing that hit Proteas fans was the realisation that he will not be playing for them in the 2019 World Cup in England.
While the ODI genius' absence left a gaping hole in the batting line-up in limited-overs cricket, even more telling was the state in which he left the Test team.
Since his return to the Test side in December 2017, de Villiers had been prolific for South Africa, pushing them for series wins against India and Australia at home. The difference between him and the rest of the batting line-up was marked in this period.
In the eight Tests against India and Australia, de Villiers racked up 638 runs at an average of 53.16. The next best batting average in the line-up is Aiden Markram’s 39.93 and in fact, aside from openers Dean Elgar and Markram, none of the other batsmen have an average in excess of 30 in this time frame.
In the recently concluded Test against Sri Lanka, de Villiers’ absence was sorely felt by the Proteas as they were dismantled by Dilruwan Perera and Rangana Herath at Galle in the first of the two-match series.
With his domineering presence in the middle-order missing, the Lankan spinners easily scythed through the Proteas line-up in the first innings as the visitors appeared to be in two-minds and looked to defend their way out of trouble.
While their blockathons have been successful in the past, one crucial component in the concoction had been de Villiers and his ability to switch gears effortlessly. While the over-defensive approach against the Lankan spinners was perhaps unwarranted as skipper Faf du Plessis later pointed out, but by playing six batsmen including a dreadfully out-of-form Quinton de Kock, it was clear that South Africa had very few choices.
The visitors did switch their approach and take the attack to the spinners in the next innings, but the results were devastating.
South Africa were bowled out for 73, their lowest total since readmission with none of their batsmen lasting even 50 balls.
“It's just a case of our batters somehow trying to put pressure back on the quality of spin bowling that Sri Lanka have. There are two ways of looking at it. You could sit it out and try and bat for as long as possible, but you also need to put pressure on the opposition. There were one or two more expansive shots than we would normally play, but the thinking behind the batting was to try and put some pressure back on the bowling because they don't give you anything,” du Plessis talked of his batsmen's approach in the second innings after the match.
The aggressive approach was certainly worth a shot after the manner in which they folded in the first innings but with the pitch assisting spin and Sri Lanka's spinners exploiting it tactfully, the ploy came apart.
While the 199-run match aggregate was a new low, the Proteas aren't new to such performances in this part of the World. Since the beginning of 2015, South Africa's scores in the sub-continent in completed Tests read 248, 184, 109, 214, 79, 185, 121, 143, 126 and 73.
There have been no scores in excess of 300 and their last 200-plus score in the sub-continent came in the second Test of the Indian tour in 2015. Unsurprisingly, their most successful batsman since the start of their disastrous record in the sub-continent (from 2015) is AB de Villiers. The middle-order batsman has 258 runs in 4 Tests at an average of 36.85. The fact that the next best average in the team is Temba Bavuma's 25.80 tells a tale.
None of their top-order batsmen showed the composure or technique to counter the Sri Lankan spinners. While Bavuma and Amla showed sparks of brilliance in their first-innings partnership, they struggled to identify the right way to tackle the spinners.
Later, Vernon Philander, in a partnership with du Plessis, showed much better technique than many of the top order batsmen. He got behind the line of the ball and played good defensive shots. That Philander was the only South African to face more than 100 balls in this Test match shows how woeful the top-order was.
With their team combinations unsettled and too many uncertainties in their batting order, South Africa’s first Test post de Villiers’ retirement was a harsh reality check in many ways. Their regular frailties against spin bowling has become an emergency that needs to be addressed at the earliest.
While filling up a de Villiers-sized hole in the middle-order could be impossible, they might want to shore up their batting with an additional batsman, at least in these conditions. With the next Test due to start in three days, there is very little time for the visitors to cater to the primary issue. However, what they can do is add extra ammunition to their batting line-up and hope it helps them stave off Lankan spinners to an extent.