GALLE – Where to now for South Africa? That’s the immediate question facing the brainstrust after the Proteas were entranced by the spin wizards of Sri Lanka in this truncated first Test.
Only eight sessions were required for the hosts to take an unassailable 1-0 lead, with the tourists occupying the crease for 83.2 overs and just about managing to accumulate 199 runs across both innings.
If that makes the stomach churn like the hottest Sri Lankan curry, try digesting the fact that Sri Lanka’s Dimuth Karunaratne’s match aggregate of 218 was individually superior and that South Africa’s second innings lasted a mere 28.5 overs that yielded 73 runs – eclipsing Nagpur’s 2015 record low of 79 in the process.
Karunaratne certainly showed the South Africans that runs could be scored on a surface that was providing appreciable but not reckless turn, although the pugnacious left-hander did not have to contend with Dilruwan Perera and Rangana Herath.
The duo are past masters in their own conditions, causing confusion not through vicious spin but rather deception of trajectory, speed and most importantly manipulation of the opposition’s minds.
The consistency with which they execute their art places them right at the top of tree, and South Africa’s batsmen certainly had no antidote for the slow poison they were spewing out.
Perera was the chief-destroyer on a cool Saturday afternoon with 6/32 – to complete career-best match figures of 10/78 – but his wily partner Rangana Herath was right there beside him with 3/38.
And just to show they are not a selfish bunch, they allowed left-armer Lakshan Sandakan the opportunity to claim last-man Tabraiz Shamsi as all South Africa’s 10 wickets fell to spin in one session.
But for all the brilliance of the Sri Lankan spinners, the South African batting unit's shot-selection left a lot to desired, which was epitomised by the fact that both openers Dean Elgar and Aiden Markram were stumped.
“You almost predict it’s worse than it is,” Proteas captain Faf du Plessis said in the aftermath.
“The biggest weapon they have is their consistency. That is what makes it difficult. It just has to spin a little bit, that is enough.
“More often or not, it was the ball that didn’t spin that got us out. It wasn’t easy. They didn’t give us much singles. And to get a boundary you needed to take a risk and there is a 50/50 chance in that.
“They are very good, so you need to make a plan. We expected it to be tough. I didn’t think the wicket was that bad.
“I think it was actually a decent Test wicket. There weren’t any demons. We knew the Sri Lankan spinners are good, especially in their own conditions. I think its good lessons for us to learn.”
South Africa’s reputation for starting series slowly, especially on the subcontinent, will undoubtedly come under the spotlight again after this shattering 278-run defeat.
The Proteas played a solitary two-day warm-up match before this Galle encounter, but the Proteas skipper believes arriving earlier on the island would not have altered the outcome one bit.
“Leading up to a series like this, you know the quality that you’re going to get from some of the spinners. It is not something you can just practice against in the nets,” Du Plessis said.
“We played (warm-up game) on a flat wicket which didn’t spin. The nets haven’t spun at all.
“Even if we came a month earlier, it would not have mattered if you not practising on facilities that doesn’t spin.
“The quality of spin in this Test match and how they controlled it was fantastic. That’s where we’ve to improve, especially in these conditions where you have to make a play.”
For a team searching for a silver lining after such a horrid performance, the Proteas can at least celebrate Dale Steyn leveling Shaun Pollock’s all-time national record of 421 Test wickets on Saturday.
Perhaps finally breaking it in Colombo next week in the second Test in what will hopefully be more favourable circumstances for the world’s No 2 Test side simply have to turn it around if they are to salvage this series.