DURBAN - Ottis Gibson and his Proteas team are now on the coastal enclave of Galle, surrounded by some of the most underrated natural beauty in the world. They are days away from their first assignment, with the Test series against their hosts starting on Thursday, in a place surrounded by equal parts history and mystery.
Galle, in many ways, is a microcosm of the island of Sri Lanka, quietly punching above its weight with a slap of culture and character. It doesn’t scream for attention, but rather seduces you discreetly, as the warm Indian Ocean laps at your toes, and the beach bars whisper your name, telling you should come hither for one more drink before the night is over.
When South Africa were last in Galle, they celebrated their first Test victory with a dinner just a street away from the beach paradise. It was Hashim Amla’s first Test as skipper, and the victory was hard-fought; an intoxicating mix of rush-hour cricket and spells of sedate progress. The rush-hours were marshalled by Dale Steyn, whose late afternoon in-swing demanded that tourists atop the Fort of Galle stop the selfies, and cast an engaging eye upon proceedings on the ground below.
Steyn was that good, that mesmeric and possessed once he sniffed blood. It was Steyn, too, who was leading the celebrations once the sun had set on Sri Lanka’s defences. After their team dinner, the Phalaborwa Express ushered his team-mates (and their burly national army detail) over the exposed rocks, and to the hidden gems that were the beach bars.
Startled locals, high on life and the flavours of the island, had to do a double-take, as Messrs Steyn, Du Plessis, De Villiers, De Kock, Philander, Morkel and so many others made their way up the rickety stairs of the Chilli Bar, and ordered a drink. A couple of the travelling media also had to look again, as unmistakable South African accents floated into their new haunt.
Out came the cameras – only they were those of the players, marvelling at the hidden gem that they had somehow discovered. The soldiers, with hands on the trigger, were perched on the water, looking out to sea – as if anticipating a submarine to pop up and seek revenge for what had occurred on the field.
And then, as suddenly as the players arrived, they left, promising to come back to the Chilli Café if they ever got the chance. The locals switched the music back on, and the journalists in the corner went back to their musing over mojitos.
This week, the Chilli Café may see Steyn come for one more celebration, if he takes the three wickets that he needs to break Shaun Pollock’s national Test record, and also helps his side to another win on the dry, Galle patch.
Gibson has already indicated that Steyn is in, because the 35 year-old master "knows what he needs to do to get himself ready for Thursday". Gibson, like many other disciples of the fast-bowling faith, needs no convincing about the value that Steyn brings to that table.
He is in, then. As is Kagiso Rabada, and Vernon Philander. Depending on which way the team decides to go, Keshav Maharaj may get a helping hand from Tabraiz Shamsi in the spin department, which would likely mean that the Proteas play six batsmen, with Quinton de Kock playing as a front-line batter, who happens to keep.
That selection would probably be likelier in the second Test, if Galle goes the wrong way, and South Africa have to chase the series. In all probability, they will go with their three quicks and Maharaj, and play seven batsmen.
They will trust Steyn and company to run amok, and the batsmen to pile on the agony for a Sri Lankan team that is not nearly the force it used to be – even on home soil. And then, if there is time, Steyn may yet head back to the Chilli Café at the end of the beach, and toast another good week at the office.