Exactly a year ago, Sri Lanka’s formidable record at home was in tatters. They suffered a crushing three nil drubbing against Virat Kohil’s India. The loss against the world’s No 1 Test team was not an aberration. The performance of the side has been on a steady decline with their first ever defeat against Bangladesh at home which was followed by another debacle — a ODI series loss to Zimbabwe. To add to their woes, coach Graham Ford, in charge of overseeing the transition phase of the team following the exits of Kumar Sangakarra, Mahela Jayawardene and Tilllakaratne Dilshan also put in his papers. The rumblings in the cricket board with the Sports Ministry taking control of its administration added to the confusion. Even the build up to the series against South Africa, ranked No 2 in the Test rankings, was hardly ideal with captain Dinesh Chandimal ruled out of the series, a fall out of the ball tampering controversy from their previous tour to the West Indies.
Amidst the backdrop, the emphatic 2-0 series win over the Proteas is being hailed as a huge achievement for Sri Lankan cricket. The team exploited the home conditions to perfection on spinner friendly tracks at Galle and Colombo with their three pronged spin stack proving too hot to handle. 37 of the 40 wickets of the South African batsmen during the series were claimed by the spinners. Barring the second innings at Colombo when Theunis de Bruyn and Temba Bavuma unleashed the sweep shots, the visitors were hopelessly outwitted by Rangana Herath and company.
Though the tracks were tailor-made for spinners, most of the South African batsmen perished to poor technique rather than devils in the pitch. Hashim Amla, the most experienced batsmen in the South African batting line up, was dismissed thrice in similar fashion spooning catches to the close fielders. The variety in the Sri Lankan’s spin armoury added to their woes. Along with the more traditional finger spinning options of Herath and Dilruwan Perera, Sri Lanka also had Akila Dananjaya in their rank-the mystery spinner who had three variations to flummox the batsmen — the googly, leg spin and the off-spin.
The different trajectories with almost similar action befuddled the South Africans. 40-year-old Rangana Herath showed he still has plenty of tricks up his sleeves using his guile even with the new ball. The left arm spinner, the only current Test player to have debuted in the previous century, bagged 12 wickets to break into the top ten list of leading wicket takers in Tests. Herath is expected to announce his retirement after the England series, Sri Lanka’s next assignment at home later this year. As Herath walks into the sunset calling time to an illustrious career, the likes of Perera, Dananjaya and Lakshan Sandakan will form the core of the Sri Lankan spin attack in the years ahead. Perera was the leading wicket-taker in the series scalping 16 wickets.
The performance of the much vaunted South African pace attack was disappointing. Dale Steyn on his hyped return to Test cricket after an injury layoff, was just four short of overhauling Shaun Pollock’s record as the highest Test wicket taker of South Africa. Pollock, working as a commentator in the series would arrive every day at the ground with a champagne bottle to gift Steyn to commemorate the landmark when he goes past his own record. Pollock had even penned a personal note to go with the bottle. But an off-colour Steyn struggled with the conditions and bagged just three wickets in the series, one shy of overtaking Pollock. On a tour which offered any champagne moments for the visitors, the bottle was carried back to the hotel.
The South African think tank got it wrong when it came to team selection — opting to go with solitary spinner — going into the Colombo Test, where the pitch was known to assist slow bowlers. According to captain Faf de Plessis, the selectors felt the abrasive surface will help the ball to reverse which will help their pace bowlers to make a telling difference. The script went horribly wrong with the pace bowlers hardly making an impression with Dale Steyn returning wicketless. Left arm spinner Keshav Maharaj with 12 wickets in the match meant there was plenty to offer for the spinners and the decision to leave out the other specialist spinners in the squad — Tabrez Shamsi or Shaun von Berg — was a costly lapse.
Dimuth Karunaratne with four consecutive scores of over fifty in the series was the stand out performer with the bat averaging over 118. The left hander has been a consistent performer and has been mostly unruffled with the constant chopping and changing of his opening partners. But beside Karunaratne, there was not much to cheer about from the Sri Lankan batsmen and the likes of Kusal Mendis and Dhananjaya de Silva will need to step up as Sri Lanka looks to improve their Test rankings where they currently languish at No 6.
On a nightmarish tour amidst the batting doom and gloom, Theunis de Bruyn was the lone batting spark discovered by South Africa. The right hander did not have a great Test record averaging less than 15 in his last five tests. Yet at SSC, he exhibited superb technique and mental grit to score a fighting hundred.
Going ahead, the poor form of Amla (with an average of less than 25 in 2018) who had an extended lean trot and Steyn’s rusty performance will give the South African selectors plenty to ponder.
South Africa will be breathing much easier when they host Sri Lanka early next year on hard and bouncy pitches where it is expected to be payback time.
But this difficult tour has left the Proteas with plenty of soul searching on how to tackle and adapt to the conditions in the sub-continent.