DURBAN – South Africa’s reputation may have been built on the back of a pace attack that is varied and skilful, but the tour of Sri Lanka may yet see Faf du Plessis’ men do the unusual, and go into a Test match with two frontline spinners.
Back in 2014, when they won a tense Test series 1-0, holding on for a draw in the second Test in Colombo, SA were almost undone by Sri Lanka’s dustbowls.
While Galle dried out enough to allow the fast bowlers to generate reverse-swing, the R Premadasa Stadium and the Sinhalese Sports Club, both in Colombo, are slower surfaces, and bake enough to start taking serious turn and variable bounce as the game wears on.
One of the enduring images from the tour of 2014 was Imran Tahir on the final day. As SA clung on with the bat, the tail-ender pulled out some hamstring histrionics.
Tahir’s timely spasms, and a late rearguard, saw SA home, but they have taken lessons from that last trip. Along with the now established Keshav Maharaj, they have taken Shaun von Berg along to Sri Lanka.
The Titans spinner might not be on everyone’s radar, given how little attention is afforded to the domestic four-day game, but he has most certainly done the hard yards over the past few years.
A leg-spinner, he differs from Tahir in that his stock ball is the genuine leg-break, he bowls at a pace that allows for a bit more turn and bounce.
Von Berg has become a fulcrum in the Titans’ playing XI, as he is capable of bowling long spells, and also providing some control with the ball.
He is also a handy batting option, and has spent a lot of time in the nets with Mark Boucher, working on becoming more than just an annoyance with bat in hand.
Indeed, the Titans have earmarked him as an all-rounder for the season to come.
“It has always been my dream to play for my country. Just to be in the squad is a massive honour. If I get the opportunity to play, then I will do my best,” Von Berg said when he was called up to the Proteas Test squad.
“A few of the guys at the Titans had told me that my name had been mentioned as a possibility for the tour, but I couldn’t believe it when I got the phone call from Linda Zondi.”
Von Berg also appreciates that bowling spin, on the sub-continent, against players who were playing the turning ball as soon as they could walk, would be a unique challenge in itself.
But, as his domestic teammates will attest to, the combative, bespectacled Von Berg is one who doesn’t shy away from a challenge.
Galle will almost certainly see SA play just Maharaj as the slow bowler, with the steadily improving Dean Elgar also chipping in with a few overs.
But, if the series is there to be won when they head back to the Sri Lankan capital, do not be surprised to see Ottis Gibson hand his leg-spinner a Test debut.
SA have arrived in Colombo, and they will play a two-day practice match from Saturday.