COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - Four years ago the final day at the SSC was the backdrop of tension, relief and finally tears of joy for the Proteas. On Monday, shortly after lunchtime on the fourth day, it was one of grave disappointment.
Perhaps the only Proteas that deserved a little smile of self-satisfaction at the end-of-series presentation ceremony was maiden centurion Theunis de Bruyn and 12-wicket man Keshav Maharaj. But for the rest it was a sense of disillusionment at having been whitewashed by a side that is not only four places below the Proteas on the ICC ladder, but also the realisation that their conquerors are actually a team beset with off-field issues.
Sri Lanka are currently without their captain, coach and manager after the ICC imposed the maximum sanction upon the trio for their role in “bringing the game into disrepute” during the preceding series in the West Indies. To exacerbate matters, there are two players, including current opening batsman Danushka Gunathilaka who struck twin half-centuries here in this final Test, that have suspensions hanging over their heads due to ill-discipline.
That’s as close to chaos as you can get with lesser teams probably not even wanting to get out of bed, let alone whip the World’s No 2 side by 278 runs and 199 runs respectively in the two Tests played. So, the burning questions are: Where does that leave the Proteas, and where to from here?
After the home summer triumphs over World No 1 India and arch-rivals Australia, the South African camp was filled with optimism. Young players were beginning to make their mark and the changing of the coaching guard from Russell Domingo to Ottis Gibson seemed to be a smooth transition. But after suffocating under a web of spin for the past fortnight here in Sri Lanka, there are now calls for immediate change, especially if social media is to be regarded as the voice of reason.
Captain Faf du Plessis certainly doesn’t reckon the wielding of a guillotine will serve the desired purpose. Instead he believes the transformation should rather be one of attitude and mindset, especially when touring the subcontinent, and he even admitted that South Africa did indeed get their starting XI horribly wrong for this final Test in the capital with the inclusion of just one specialist spinner.
“We unfortunately made a mistake in playing the three seamers that we did. Our expectation was that the ball would reverse. And in both Test matches, we saw that reverse swing didn’t play a role," he said.
“That’s the learning for us as a brains trust. Our way of coming to the subcontinent needs to adapt, whether it’s playing two or even three spinners, when you come to conditions like this you give yourself the best opportunity. Balance is always a challenge - that was one of the reasons why it was difficult for us to go like that."
South Africa’s pre-series preparation has also been placed under the spotlight, but the team management believes the situation was outside of their control. The option of setting up a base camp in the United Arab Emirates prior to arriving in Sri Lanka was explored, but ultimately it would have proved too costly an exercise.
Steyn tries to go big again but skies the ball and he's caught for 6. South Africa are all out for 290, congratulations Sri Lanka on their 199-run victory and 2-0 series victory. Too good in this 2nd match.
Herath 6/98 (his 4th five-wicket haul), De Bruyn 101.#SLvSA pic.twitter.com/LmK1PwjdIn
Considering the Proteas lost 37 of their 40 wickets to spin in the series, it was perhaps an investment that should have been made. Du Plessis, though, is adamant that his team is by no means alone in its battles to counter quality spin on the turning tracks of the subcontinent and that his team will improve if conditions for first-class matches at home are tailored.
“It’s a global issue. Whenever a team tours the subcontinent - whether it’s Australia or England or us - there’s always a question mark on how you play spin. It’s a world issue that we’re trying to get better at. I don’t think we play spin badly, but if you compare yourself to the subcontinent batters, then they’re obviously a step above us in that regard,” he said.
“It has to be a case of looking at how you can get your own home conditions to try and get exposed to these kinds of conditions a little more often, when you’re playing first-class cricket. That’s where the challenge lies for the South Africas and the Englands and the Australias of the world.”