As a South African writing on a Sri Lankan charity website, it’s difficult not to be at least a little smug about the result of the first cricket test that concluded a few days ago. While the result was perhaps not particularly surprising, the South African side came into the game with a lot to prove, having not won a home test series since 2008. South Africa will be very happy; particularly with the margin and manner of victory. Though despite the large margin it cannot be claimed as a historic test win for South Africa, as Sri Lanka’s performance was well below par.
A number of excuses can be made: limited preparation time in South African conditions, a long list of injuries to fast bowlers (including Mathews during the game), the ongoing non-payment of players and the bouncy, spicy pitch they were faced with (though some Sri Lankans might take exception to having “spicy” associated with anything non-Asian, particularly in this case).
It’s also difficult to be too critical of the Sri Lankan bowling. For the most part they tried hard; Fernando and Perera in particular troubled the batsmen for periods. They were not consistent enough to make a real impact on the game, but a lack of experience in these conditions no doubt played a part. Fundamentally though, in the matchup Welegedera / Perera / Fernando / Mathews vs. Steyn / Morkel / Philander / Kallis is only likely to have one winner. The return of Nuwan Kulasekara might help, but Sri Lanka should probably rather focus on identifying bowlers with potential for the future and stick with them for a few years; at the moment they quite simply don’t have a pace bowler capable of ripping through a side (unless someone can find a physio / spiritual healer that can get Malinga’s body to last for 40 overs).
But more should be expected of Sri Lanka’s batting, which is still strong on paper. The reliance on Sangakarra and Jayawardene has never been more evident than it is now and an improvement is still most likely to come from these two. The two great players made only 48 runs between them and it’s unlikely that both will fail again in the second test.
Having said that, the form of Tillakaratne Dilshan is severely hampering the Sri Lankan performance. Dilshan was the first player to lose his wicket in the game, with a shot that immediately brought to mind the term “hara-kiri”. The Sri Lankans have made it clear that they want to play their natural, aggressive brand of cricket, but his shot must have eased any nerves the South African bowlers might have had and set the tone for the game. The desire to play aggressive cricket is commendable and appropriate, but as an experienced player Dilshan should have realised that this was neither the time, nor the pitch, to be slogging across the line.
Good sides always target the opposition captain and Dilshan made it all too easy. For a Sri Lankan side clearly in a period of transition, you have to question whether an out-of-form 35 year old captain is the right choice. Angelo Matthews seems to have been identified as a leader, and perhaps his time should come sooner rather than later. I can’t help but feel that Dilshan is more likely to return to form if the pressure is taken off him. Perhaps he’ll also be more suited to batting in the middle order in South African conditions. However take heart Sri Lankan fans: given my talent lack of for prediction and Dilshan’s abundant talent for cricket, he’ll no doubt open and score 200 off 150 balls in the next test.
South Africa wouldn’t have learned too much from the game – Mark Boucher will have prolonged his test career by at least a few more games with a fighting 65 and Morne Morkel will be under pressure to improve as the series goes on – but otherwise it was a fairly run-of-the-mill, if well executed, performance. With the addition of Philander and Tahir the South African side now has all the looks of a world beating side, but their ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory still haunts them and will continue to do so until they win a major trophy, or beat England next summer.
I expect Sri Lanka to come out fighting and for the second test to be much more of a contest than the first. The Durban pitch might also be (ever so slightly) more favourable to spin bowlers (worth gambling on the “mystery” element of Mendis?), although despite these factors it’s difficult to see South Africa losing if they play anywhere near their potential. But, as someone who’s watched his team collapse like a pack of cards in a hurricane for five world cups, three T20 world championships and countless test matches, I’ve learned to take their potential with a pound of salt!