Colombo - As the dust settles on the considerable road that the Proteas took on, and conquered, in Galle, the attention has quickly shifted to the Sinhalese Sports Club, scene of the second and final Test from Thursday.
After a stellar win, the one thing that the South Africans know has to improve is the spin department. More to the point, Imran Tahir needs to find the form that comes so readily in one-day cricket, and extend it over five days.
In Galle, he appeared to be getting increasingly anxious. To be fair, it was hard to get a look in when two bowlers shared 16 wickets but, when he got the ball, he often released the pressure that was being built at the other end.
“What I’ve said to him is that he mustn’t fall into a trap just because we are in Sri Lanka and the wickets are dry. The spinners come into play and now he feels he must take five wickets. It’s all about building pressure; the wickets are a bonus,” spinners’ coach Claude Henderson explained.
Pressure is a massive part of the Proteas’ bowling game in Test cricket, and it is enhanced by a stingy fielding unit that gives precious little away. Tahir was guilty of releasing that throttling effect during the first innings, as he missed his areas, and was punished accordingly by a Lankan outfit that has recognised that he will be a danger if he is allowed to settle.
“The challenge in the longer format is not to put that pressure of getting wickets on yourself. In one-day cricket, you have got four guys on the boundary. In Test cricket, there is none, but the secret is to try and build pressure.
“How many dot balls can I bowl? How many can I bowl when I bowl my googly, or change my angle on the crease? I think that’s the recipe for us, and I think he did that very well on the final day,” Henderson pointed out.
Tahir was indeed more accurate on the final day, but he would have anticipated more than a match return of one for 139. Murmurs that he was out-bowled by the ever-improving JP Duminy were fair, given the control that Duminy brought to the party in the first innings.
As these things go, Duminy even got the key wicket of Kumar Sangakkara with a ball that could easily have ended in the sea.
“Ball of the century? Of course, it was all part of the plan,” the all-rounder chuckled, recalling his half-tracker. “It probably turned more than he anticipated, actually. But you’ve got to take it when it comes, because on another day, that ends up going for six. To get him (Sangakkara) out as softly as we did was a bonus.”
As is his nature, Duminy was quick to salute the job Tahir did in the second innings, saying his day would come soon enough.
“I’m obviously proud that I took a few wickets, but it doesn’t take away from the job that Immy did. Sometimes you don’t get the accolades or wickets, but at the end of the day we know the work he put in, and what he means to us.
“If you look at the seamers, Dale and Morné took the wickets, but Vern still did a great job. We do it in partnerships, and it worked out.”
Henderson echoed those sentiments, maintaining that though Duminy got the rewards, Tahir had also played a full part.
“We talk about partnerships in batting, and also in bowling. If your spinner is going at sixes on one end, then Steyn will struggle. So if you don’t strike, it’s not a problem. But let’s hit our areas consistently, which I thought he did really well on the last day.”
Tahir sat in the stands of the self-same Sinhalese Sports Club a few weeks ago, as the Proteas prepared for the ODI series. Then, he spoke of his hunger to bowl long spells, and just grind out the opposition.
That takes patience, and precision. He will have to rediscover that fire again, but also stoke it with the knowledge that pressure on the opposition brings its own rewards. Self-pressure, however, creates tension, and that is the bane of a spinner’s repertoire.