Whitewashed 3-0 at home by England, beaten 0-1 in New Zealand and outplayed 0-2 in Australia, no one gave Sri Lanka a glimmer of hope of beating South Africa in their own conditions. The Proteas were fresh from beating Pakistan 3-0 and looking forward to extend that winning streak against the Lankans whom they thought would have been easy fodder going by their form when they arrived in South Africa.
But it wasn’t to be. The first Test at Durban which South Africa were dominant and should have won was rudely pulled away from their grasp by Kusal Perera who played one of the greatest Test innings (153 not out) to defy the odds and create an unlikely win for Sri Lanka by one wicket.
That kind of innings is not played often but it is one of those that can ignite a team that is down and out and give renewed hopes and belief that they are not that bad at all as they thought they are.
Kusal’s knock was just the antidote that the struggling Sri Lankans needed to bring life back into the side and they proved that their win at Durban was no fluke by thrashing South Africa by eight wickets in the second Test at Port Elizabeth to complete a 2-0 whitewash of the two-Test series and become the first nation from the subcontinent to win a Test series in South Africa and only the third to do so overall after England (2015-16) and Australia (2013-14).
Sri Lanka thus completed back-to-back 2-0 whitewashes of South Africa having beaten them at home seven months ago by the same margin.
When Sri Lanka toured South Africa two years ago they were thrashed 3-0. Looking at the stats the recently concluded series at the beginning looked like a mismatch of the century with South Africa’s combined total experience being an overwhelming 555 Tests compared to Sri Lanka’s 242 and furthermore the number of Test centuries scored by the 11 players in the series for Sri Lanka was 21 whereas Hashim Amla alone had 28 Test hundreds under his belt. On the bowling side Sri Lanka fielded an inexperienced attack due to injuries to their key bowlers and they had in total only four five-wicket hauls to their name in comparison to South Africa’s 56.
So where did it all go wrong for South Africa and everything right for Sri Lanka? Did the Proteas pay the price of being too overconfident having thrashed Pakistan 3-0 and seen Australia humble Sri Lanka 2-0 before the start of the series?
EMBULDENIYA FOURTH SRI LANKAN
Everyone expected South Africa to come back strongly in the second Test and when they bowled out Sri Lanka for 154 and gained a handy 68-run lead on the first innings they seemed to be in control. But Sri Lanka who had also conceded a first innings deficit in the first Test at Durban of 44 runs came back strongly in the second innings. Their bowling attack was sans their key spinner Lasith Embuldeniya (fractured finger) who had caused the South African second innings batting collapse at Durban with the last five wickets falling for eight runs. Embuldeniya ended up taking 5/66 on his Test debut becoming only the fourth Sri Lankan bowler to do so after Kosala Kuruppuarachchi, Upul Chandana and Akila Dananjaya.
In Embuldeniya’s absence part-time spinner Dhananjaya de Silva stepped in with his nippy off-breaks to do great damage to the South African second innings picking up the crucial wickets of Hashim Amla, Wiann Mulder and Dale Steyn as the Proteas batting crashed out for a mere 128 – their lowest total at home against Sri Lanka.
This left Sri Lanka with a winning target of 197 to chase in the fourth innings and create history. The early losses of openers Lahiru Thirimanne and stand-in skipper Dimuth Karunaratne for 34 runs did not deter the Lankans so much. They came into the third day of the Test requiring 137 to win with eight second innings wickets in hand and they achieved it in style and panache with the under-firing Kusal Mendis saving his best innings for the last scoring a fluent 84 not out off 110 balls and by doing so giving his inexperienced batting partner Oshada Fernando (playing in only his second Test) enough confidence to complete a maiden Test fifty (75 not out) as they forged a match-winning third wicket partnership of 163. They deprived South Africa’s much feared pace attack of Dale Steyn – the best fast bowler of the last generation, Kagiso Rabada – the best fast bowler of the present generation and Duanne Olivier who had dismantled the Pakistan batting in January of any wicket as they completed the task at hand with finesse and authority. This was in comparison to the first two days of play when 32 wickets tumbled.
With Sri Lanka’s main fast bowlers barring Suranga Lakmal all injured, it was left to their second string attack of Vishwa Fernando (not forgetting his stout-hearted batting in a match-winning last wicket stand with Kusal Perera at Durban) and Kasun Rajitha to put their hands up and rise to the occasion. Between them took 21 of the 38 wickets to fall to bowlers. Lakmal bowled brilliantly beating the bat quite often but without luck. He found some solace towards the end of the series when he picked up four in the South African second innings to terminate it for 128.
PROTEAS WEAKNESS AGAINST SPIN
South Africa’s weakness against spin even on their own pitches was quite distinct when left-armer Embuldeniya ran through their batting in the second innings at Durban and Dhananjaya de Silva performed a similar act in Embuldeniya’s absence at Port Elizabeth. When South Africa toured Sri Lanka last year for two Tests spin proved to be their undoing with Rangana Herath, Dilruwan Perera and Akila Dananjaya proving to be unplayable on dusty pitches.
It is a crying shame that Embuldeniya who had promised so much at Durban had to sit out the second Test after dislocating the left thumb of his bowling hand attempting a return catch off Rabada. It is reported that after surgery it would require at least six weeks for the injury to heal. One hopes that he does not end up the same way as another promising young spinner Jeffrey Vandersay who also suffered a broken bone on his third right finger attempting to take a return catch during a practice match and missed the 2016 tour to England. Vandersay has simply faded into obscurity since then.
South Africa’s exasperated captain Faf du Plessis placed his team’s defeat squarely on his batsmen and said they did not make the bowlers “earn” their wickets.
“Cricket is about fighting it out and grinding it out. They bowled well but the biggest disappointment lies with the team – the batting line-up and we have got some really good batters there. Probably 99% of our dismissals were soft, judgement errors and that’s the only finger pointing backward at ourselves. The defeat is a massive dent to our confidence,” Du Plessis said.
The two teams will confront each other in a five-match ODI series starting at Johannesburg on March 3.