COLOMBO – Before this series, South Africa were the world’s No 2 Test-ranked side.
Despite being thoroughly whipped here in Sri Lanka, they will remain at No 2.
But heck, if that’s the quality of the world’s second-best team, then the sport globally has a lot to worry about, for the Proteas have been rank average on the island this past fortnight.
Not only has the batting been downright awful, selection ordinary, and body language pitiful at times, but now it seems their brains have frazzled too.
For all that’s transpired – and there’s been a lot –sending in a nightwatchman that has bowled 81.1 overs in this Test to protect Nos 6 and 7 a full 21 minutes before stumps is frankly ridiculous.
The fact that it was an abject failure, with Keshav Maharaj lasting just one ball, is irrelevant.
The greater narrative is that South Africa’s “specialist” batsmen have been frozen into inaction, afraid or incapable of moving their feet to spin bowling of high quality, and sought the comfort of the dressingroom instead of the frenzied cauldron out in the middle.
Test cricket on the sub-continent is meant to be tough. It is meant to be hard.
That’s why the Proteas record of only losing one series in Asia in a decade ranks them with the very best that have played this game.
Admittedly the conditions are more challenging here than before, but it is by no means extreme.
It certainly makes for intoxicating viewing though, especially when those men with magical fingers start getting into their work.
Sri Lanka’s second innings may have meandered along ahead of the declaration shortly before the tea interval, but the game exploded into life the moment Rangana Herath, Akila Dananjaya and Dilruwan Perera had the ball in their hands.
The fact that the Proteas have dragged this second Test into the fourth day for the first time this series is not due to their sudden ability to interpret the vicious turning wrong ’uns, googlies and the most dangerous of all – the straight ball – coming out of the hand, but rather due to the generosity of their hosts.
Sri Lanka’s eagerness to close out the game led to a bout of over-excitement as they dropped a couple of catches and “dismissed” Dean Elgar twice off a no-ball – Perera the culprit on both occasions – while they also had three umpire’s call reviews go against them.
And yet for all of this good fortune that South Africa enjoyed, they still find themselves in the helpless position of trying to hunt down a mammoth 490-run target with just five wickets remaining.
“Within our group, we need to be very honest with each other. We, as the batters, have let ourselves down, and we’ll be the first critics to smash ourselves over the knuckles and say we weren’t good enough,” Elgar said frankly.
“It is frustrating and a massive disappointment through this series to know that we have stuffed up.
“It is not intentional; because it is almost the harder you try to rectify your wrong-doings, the more you actually are stuffing up.
“It is not nice to have those tough chats, but as a professional in any working industry, you have to face those demons.”
There is not much to salvage on Monday for the Proteas, apart from a few young batsmen proving they are at least learning from their mistakes.
Batting legends such as Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis are distant memories, while AB de Villiers chose to walk away at the peak of his career, and there is no point in yearning for his return.
Equally, Hashim Amla’s continued lean trot – he has scored just 40 runs in this series across four innings – is moving further and further away from a form issue and into a rather real concern.
Kagiso Rabada and left-arm spinner Maharaj, who took another wicket on Sunday to become only the seventh South African bowler to take 12 wickets in a Test, have already taken on the baton in the bowling department.
Now is the time the likes of Theunis de Bruyn, who has played positively for his unbeaten 45 off 97 balls, Temba Bavuma and Quinton de Kock to show they have the mental make-up – let alone technique – to anchor this new brigade of Proteas batsmen.
Second Test, Day 3
South Africa 124 and 139/5 (De Bruyn 45* Bavuma 14*)
Sri Lanka 338 and 275/5 declared (Karunaratne 85; Maharaj 3/154)
South Africa require 351 runs to win