A Sri Lankan side which had dragged itself across four continents in sixteen months in search of a victory post-Murali finally broke its South African hoodoo with a thumping demolition of their hosts in Durban. The raucous celebrations which followed Rangana Herath having his wicked way with Merchant de Lange’s stumps showed just how much it meant to a team which has gone so long without a win, as well as one which has gone unpaid for much of this year. Nobody gave them a prayer on Boxing Day morning, but finally their top order came to the party and the bowlers responded magnificently to tear South Africa apart. More than anything they showed how a well-organised unit can trouble a side filled with much more individual talent.
Whilst the Sri Lankans deserve to take the plaudits for what was an excellent comeback after their performance at Centurion, it’s difficult to look beyond the fact that ultimately, the South Africans cost themselves the game. Two appalling batting performances were filled to the brim with terrible shot selection and only saved from total disaster by a couple of excellent efforts from Dale Steyn once the cause was almost lost. The jury remains out on Jacques Rudolph at the top of the order, but Ashwell Prince, as the last recognised batsman, reverse sweeping to first slip at 119/6 in the first innings was beyond unforgivable. If that wasn’t enough, he later helped Hashim Amla run himself out while well set in the chase. The Proteas’ batting, in much the same way as India’s, looks immensely strong on paper but in practice resembles a house of cards.
The only positives to come from this game were Steyn’s efforts with the bat – the difference between now and when he first burst onto the scene is startling – and the performance of debutant de Lange. The ‘Noughties’ was a decade of batsmen, but 2011 has seen the emergence of a number of excellent fast bowling prospects which may see the next few years dominated by the ball. Vernon Philander has had such an incredible start to his Test career that his absence through injury seemed a major blow, but de Lange stepped purposefully into the breach and took an astonishing seven wickets in Sri Lanka’s first innings. Only 16 men in the history of the game have made a better start to their career than that (a certain DJG Sammy of the West Indies is one of those men. The team he got it against must’ve been rubbish…), and suddenly the South Africans look blessed with England-esque depth in the fast bowling department. It certainly adds yet another dilemma to the next selection meeting, as Philander must surely play. It may be that de Lange is in a straight fight with Morne Morkel for a place in Cape Town.
Regardless of how their opponents performed, this was a vital victory for Sri Lanka. The mental toll the past few years has taken on even the most experienced of their number must be huge, and it is to their immense credit that they were able to pull this out the bag. A number of this side were on the team bus shot at in Karachi – three of them, Kumar Sangakkara, Thilan Samaraweera and Tharanga Paranivitana were actually hit – and since then they have had to deal with a board dispute which has led to them going unpaid since April, while on the field they have lost their two genuine match-winners in Murali and Chaminda Vass, as well as experienced such gut-wrenching defeats as the one suffered in Cardiff just a few months ago. With that, and the fact they had never won a Test on African soil, in mind, one would have forgiven them for just wanting to get back home.
Instead, they rose to the occasion and recorded one of their most famous wins. In both innings their batting wobbled (at 117/4 and 44/3) but this time they showed some backbone and, led by centuries from Samaweera in the first and Sangakkara in the second, fought back hard to put South Africa under pressure. The batsmen did their job, and in response the bowlers did theirs; Chanaka Welegedera reduced the hosts’ top order to rubble first time around before Rangana Herath cleaned up the tail and suddenly they were in an unassailable position. The Sri Lankan side is a real mix of youth and experience and this will be a huge boost to the younger generation who have gone so long without success. Knowing you can win games is a valuable trait, and perhaps this can be a springboard towards a more successful 2012.
Despite their heroics in Durban, Sri Lanka will still probably lose the series. The benefit to them may well be in the longer run, as one would expect this South African side to recover itself and triumph at Newlands, a ground at which they have rather more happy memories. The visitors have few selection issues; they need some consistency from Dilhara Fernando, who should be the leader of their pace attack, but nothing which warrants immediate action. The same cannot be said of their hosts, who have decisions to make about Rudolph and Prince as well as the de Lange/Morkel conundrum. Cape Town usually offers the bowlers something and it usually offers the home side a win – in 23 Tests there since South Africa’s readmission the only side to beat them has been Australia – but we thought they’d win comfortably this time too…