A return to the top of the world Test rankings awaits South Africa if they can avoid defeat in the second Test against Sri Lanka, which began on Thursday, and that would be a fine and fitting reward for what has become one of the harder-earned series victories on the world circuit.
Hashim Amla made a sensational start to his tenure as Test captain by guiding his side to a 153-run victory in the first game in the Sri Lankan stronghold of Galle last week. It was an achievement that mercilessly illustrated the fast-forward nature of professional sport. How would the team cope without the longest-serving captain of all time and the greatest all-rounder? For a combined total of almost 30 years, the Proteas had Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis in their ranks.
“Every one of the batsmen in this team has the ability to bat for long periods and score hundreds, and they have done it,” said Gary Kirsten, national coach turned consultant, a day after he joined the team in Colombo this week.
“This is still a great team with a core of great players who have been winning Test matches for many years. It’s nothing new.
“JP Duminy walks to the crease at number seven and scores 100; Dean Elgar opens the batting and scores 100 immediately; Quinton de Kock looks at home in Test cricket and is developing quickly into a genuine all-rounder. There’s a lot to be excited about.”
Kirsten is a batting specialist so it is natural he should concentrate on what he knows. But it is also a case of Kirsten not being able to do justice to the epic performances of Dale Steyn (9-99) and Morné Morkel (7-78) in claiming 16 of the 20 wickets in Galle.
“Awesome,” he said, with a grin and shake of the head.
As coach, Kirsten bewildered friend and foe alike with his lack of interest in the pitch. When many others would conduct forensic inspections of the playing surface after training, he would have tea. Or, more usually, carry on throwing balls to a batsman in need.
“It is what it is, isn’t it?” he would say. “You can’t change it. You just have to deal with it. The best way of reading a pitch is from the first few balls you face on it.”
The 46-year-old World Cup winner has the same view on atmospheric and climactic conditions. Every time the Proteas have been to Sri Lanka, and parts of India, the physical challenges are discussed as much as the cricketing ones.
“I don’t care what the conditions are; so what? It’s whatever temperature and it’s humid, and you’re sweating buckets; it doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is batting for a long period of time.
“It should go back to when you were 10 or 11 years old; that’s the first thing I learnt at that age. If you want to be a professional cricketer, the most important lesson is learning how to bat [for] long periods. It has nothing to do with what the heat or humidity is.
“Yes, prepare properly, drink water, do everything you need to do. But don’t allow it to [become] an issue once you’re out there,” he said.
Ironically, Kirsten’s presence with the team for the second Test was neither planned nor requested by the Proteas. Despite being on a 50-day annual contract, he was invited to Colombo by a business consortium eager to hear his talk on Successful Coaching: How to Win a World Cup.
Kirsten volunteered to join the squad and they happily accepted.
“I’m very excited about the 50 days. I consider it a massive privilege to be involved. I love coaching and I love being involved with this team. I’m fully mindful of the fact that consultancy is extremely different to being a head coach, and I believe Russell [Domingo] is doing a fantastic job with Hashim at the helm of the Test team.
“I love the split captaincy between formats; it broadens the base of our leadership within the team. I advocated different captains, and different coaches for that matter, because it maintains a fresh approach and new ideas,” Kirsten said.
It does depend, of course, on the different captains and coaches being mature, and secure, enough to operate without worrying about their backs.
A chance to bring something different
“For me this is a chance to bring something a bit different, some ‘freshness’. I know what it’s like to hear the sound of the same voices all the time, especially when it was my own. This way suits my needs too, because I don’t want to be on tour for too long,” Kirsten said.
Amla, like Kirsten, downplayed conditions without dismissing them. When players lose up to 4kg in fluid after six hours in the field, it is not a trivial matter.
“We have played well everywhere around the world in the last few years so we shouldn’t be too surprised to see Dale, Morné and Vernon [Philander] coping with the conditions and finding a way to take wickets,” Amla said.
“There is nothing we can do about the turnaround period between Tests. You can’t add any time, you just have to make the most of the three days you have. We tried to give everyone the maximum time to recover, especially the fast bowlers because their workload was extensive, but they all looked fresh and fine,” Amla said on Wednesday.
“Some of us, who didn’t score many runs, batted for a full session but, for most of the guys it was just a top-up.”
When AB de Villiers suggested that the Sinhalese Sports Club “traditionally offered the seamers a bit more than most other grounds in the country”, he was barely able to suppress a smile. “Well, maybe it does something for the first session, or hour. But if we lose the toss we have to make the running. You can’t sit back and give up. You have to keep going and make a plan.”
The last time De Villiers played a Test here was the last time South Africa lost a series away from home, when Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene added a world record 624 together.
“Bad memory,” admitted De Villiers, grimacing. “But it was part of my growing up as a person and a cricketer, same with Dale. He was here, too. Maybe we will be able to leave this time and say it was payback.”
Amla’s main concern before the Test might or might not have been the form of leg-spinner Imran Tahir. Like his predecessor, Smith, the current captain went out of his way to give him a ringing endorsement – “one of the best leg spinners in world cricket” – and, also like Smith, said it was just a “matter of time before he came good”.
The spotlight, however, will not be on Amla, either as a batsman or a captain. Short of runs he may have been in Galle but he lacked nothing in leadership.
“I haven’t done it for many years now but I have always stayed in the game and been alert to the way the game is moving and shaping. It’s too early to judge but I have had a most enjoyable start.”