No matter what Hashim Amla decided with regard to his declaration against Sri Lanka during his first Test in charge, it was always going to be under the microscope.
If South Africa batted on for too long, he would have been called too conservative. Now, after setting Sri Lanka a target of 370 with four sessions to go, many will be wondering if he wasn’t perhaps being too generous.
South Africa’s second innings showed that there were still runs in this pitch, if you take the attacking approach. A few puffs of dust and a few balls turning out of the footmarks also showed that there is plenty in it for the spinners.
If the spinners are capable of landing in the right areas, of course. South Africa’s slow bowlers failed in that task in the final session. Their combined figures were 16-2-64-0 by close of play on Saturday, not exactly the kind of tight approach a captain would want from his turners.
But, as the saying goes: Stats are like puppets, if you reach deep enough you can make them say anything.
The statistics for chasing totals at Galle were certainly in South Africa’s favour. No team has chased down 370 here and things happen very quickly in the subcontinent. Get one wicket and a few more will follow. So far, South Africa have managed just one wicket, with Kumar Sangakkara being his usual brilliant self and taking on the bowlers as the hosts go in search of an historic victory.
Just twice before has a captain declared twice and lost—Garry Sobers in 1968 against England and Graeme Smith in 2006 against Australia. This is also only the fifth time that South Africa have declared twice away from home. They did so in Birmingham in 2003, Sydney in 2006, St. Kitts in 2010 and Wellington in 2012. They lost one and drew the rest of those games.
That begs the question: Was the Amla declaration too sporting? He has given Sri Lanka room to manoeuvre and with players like Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Angelo Mathews, he has given them a chance to win—taunted them with a chance to win, even. It speaks of the faith he has in his bowlers, but so far the spinners have let him down.
Imran Tahir in particular has had a tough Test. While he has had spells of bowling well and building pressure, he far too often undoes all of that hard work with a rank long hop that is all too easily dispatched to the boundary.
Amla's decision wasn't too bold. Instead, it speaks volumes of what kind of mindset this team has taken. They are willing to risk losing in order to give themselves a chance of winning. That takes some serious guts. Whatever the result in the end, it's important to keep that in mind.
It is a strange situation to be in for South Africa. As great as Graeme Smith was, he always took the safety-first approach. An extra hour of batting with the tail after tea might have irked Sri Lanka and added a few more runs, but it would also have been an extra burden on the bowlers.
Amla might end up ruing his decision, but at least it's refreshing.