Fans were as tense as a trapeze artist with a hangover, and even with very little happening, the final day of the second Test between Sri Lanka and South Africa was enchanting. South Africa had to battle weather, spin and time in order to hold out for a draw. They did so – and along came their first Test series victory in Sri Lanka in over two decades. It also sent them back to the top of the Test rankings, a plaudit which was quite cruelly pried away from them without anyone actually bowling a ball.
Between some theatrical cramping from Imran Tahir, endless hours of concentration from some of South Africa’s batsmen and the fast bowlers giving their all, South Africa managed to pull off a great feat. Hashim Amla will be wondering what all this fuss is about captaincy and the team will return home with their away record still intact – plus a few things to ponder.
South Africa are the road warriors
It’s been eight years since South Africa last lost a Test series away from home. In that time, they have beaten England, Australia and now Sri Lanka on their own turf. They have been up against it time and time again, but they have always prevailed. Although the record was sealed after they won the first Test, it has now been reaffirmed. Not that it was ever in doubt, but this group of South African players is truly unique and special. While there are some issues and while all players have their flaws, what they have managed to achieve in Sri Lanka is nothing short of remarkable. Not only have they won the series and fought out a gritty draw, but they have done it all right after losing two of their stalwarts. It is rare that “transitions” happen so seamlessly and, of course, there will be many tougher tests still to come. For now, at least, South Africa are on one heck of a ride.
Quinton de Kock is unlikely to go anywhere
He’s still wet behind the ears, especially when playing against spin, and he has loads to learn about wicketkeeping, but for the time being, Quinton de Kock is not going to go anywhere. He has done enough to prove that he is as talented as the hype suggests, and he has the makings of a Test player. He is also versatile, in that he can float up and down the order if required. This came in handy for South Africa late on day four, when Hashim Amla, Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers were being saved for the big day five dig. De Kock was moved up the order and survived the day without doing anything too foolish. He understood his role in this situation and did just what young players who are still learning do – got distracted. While De Villiers decides whether his back is injured or not, De Kock is not going to lose his spot in the team anytime soon. He has his maiden Test fifty under his belt, too, and has done enough this series to see him stay on for the foreseeable future.
Vernon Philander is the match-saving specialist
Forget Vernon Philander’s on-and-off form with the ball this series – he has shown once again that when it comes to saving a Test, he is the man for the job. Philander has become a reliable lower order batsman who can frustrate bowlers and stick it out when it really matters. Although his natural game is to attack, he supressed those urges against Sri Lanka and shepherded the tail when they really needed a clutch performance. Philander now averages 27.79 in Tests with four fifties to his name at an overall strike-rate of 45.65. In times of lower order trouble, South Africa could do worse than having him dig in.
Hashim Amla won’t be too bothered by captaincy
When Hashim Amla dropped down to number four in the batting line-up in the first Test, some eyebrows were raised over how this captaincy lark is going to impact his performance. He didn’t get runs in the first Test, but he showed in the second that any concerns that there might have been were greatly exaggerated. In the first innings, Amla dug in and scored what now looks like a match-saving hundred. In the second innings, he batted for almost three hours, unfazed by dot ball after dot ball coming his way. Amla is the epitome of being unflappable and after surviving his first Test series as captain relatively unscathed, things can only get better form here.
South African selectors have some important calls to make
Alviro Petersen and Imran Tahir have question marks over their heads. Petersen’s struggles with the bat have been quite evident lately and in the series against Sri Lanka, he lacked patience and resilience. It’s not like Petersen is a stranger to being patience – from waiting for his chance to be selected to grinding out gritty knocks at the top of the order. But that was absent in Sri Lanka. With Graeme Smith’s departure, South African selectors can be forgiven for not throwing caution into the wind and selecting a rookie, but Petersen is surely on notice now. There are a few options. Quinton de Kock, the natural opener, could move up the order and take over the responsibility, although there are some concerns whether he can keep wicket and open. But with AB de Villiers in the team, the glove duties could possibly be shared, but that’s no good for consistency. Faf du Plessis could also step up to open or, uncapped, Stiaan van Zyl could transform from regular number three to opening bat. With a one-off Test against Zimbabwe coming up, it might be time to trial a few combinations. Petersen is heading towards the twilight of his career and has a back-up option with county Somerset. Dropping him will catapult South Africa into full-on transition mode. It’s up to the selectors to decide how soon they want to take that jump.
Tahir is the other concern. While he did his bit with the bat in saving the Test, his bowling remains innocuous and ineffective, even on tracks that suit him perfectly fine. With JP Duminy increasingly playing a part with the ball, Tahir’s performances can no longer be excused. But, if his cramping up performance in the dying minutes of the final Test is anything to go by, at least a cameo role in Isidingo awaits him when he eventually gets dropped. DM
Match result: Draw
Sri Lanka 421 (Jayawardene 165, Dickwella 72, Mathews 63) and 229 for 8 dec (Sangakkara 72, Mathews 63*, Morkel 4-45)
South Africa 282 (Amla 139, Perera 5-69, Herath 4-71) and 159 for 8 (Herath 5-40, Perera 3-60)
Photo: South Africa’s cricket team members pose with the trophy after winning the test cricket series against Sri Lanka in Colombo July 28, 2014. South Africa drew the second test against Sri Lanka to win the two-match series 1-0 on Monday. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte
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