Spinners play a very important role in cricket. Even if they don’t actually turn the ball, they are expected to at least be able to hold up one end and create some sort of pressure. It is a mysterious art which has been curated by many greats in years past, but it can resemble a car crash when not done right.
South Africa and Sri Lanka are currently locked in a battle of spinning opposites. On the one side, Sri Lanka’s spinners are not only keeping things tidy, they are also bamboozling the opposition’s batsmen. On the other side, South Africa are struggling with an inconsistent leg spinner who can’t do any of those things, and it’s hurting them.
Sri Lanka trusted their frontline spinner so much that they decided to open the bowling with him on Day 2 in Colombo. It worked like a charm. Rangana Herath dismissed Alviro Petersen in his first over of the day, off a rather ordinary delivery. Perhaps, though, it was more the element of surprise that got to the opener.
Dean Elgar followed shortly after, falling to a spinner too. Dilruwan Perera wove a web of uncertainty to trap the left-hander this time.
There wasn’t anything outstanding about either Herath or Perera, they just keep their spin simple and consistent. And, most importantly, Sri Lanka's spinners were tight and consistent, not allowing for any pressure-releasing balls. Herath and Perera both had economy rates of under two. In South Africa's bowling innings, Imran Tahir's was 3.66 and part-timer JP Duminy was being carted for 4.44.
The track in Colombo isn’t exactly spinning wildly, but it does help to have bowlers who can turn the screws and create the pressure. Pressure forces batsmen into mistakes born out of desperation to relieve it. They play shots, go for runs and do all sorts of other foolish things they would not ordinarily do.
Despite the big loss in Galle, Sri Lanka's spinners were crafty there, too. In the first innings, Herath managed to keep his economy rate below 2.50 there, despite bowling 60 overs. Perera was slightly more expensive, but made up for it with wickets. Both spinners were attacking in the second innings and got their just reward.
Tahir is supposed to be South Africa’s premier spinner, but he has not grown into the role in Tests. Despite having a great googly, Tahir’s inability to deliver consistent good balls has cost South Africa.
The leg spinner seemingly cannot keep containing batsmen, and is often guilty of bowling too full, not giving the ball chance to do anything off the pitch, even when the pitch suits him. This was blatantly evident in Galle, where on a turning track, Tahir managed just one wicket and was out-bowled by Duminy. That is a big concern for his future and the future blueprint for the South African Test side.
In limited overs, Tahir has been allowed to get away with his inconsistency, firstly because pressure comes far sooner in limited overs format, but also because field placings allow for the odd, bad delivery. In Tests, he simply releases the pressure. It’s not a new issue, he has had very bad Tests before and every time it seems like Tahir has played his last Test, he returns.
South Africa’s next outing is against Zimbabwe, and they might be tempted to end the Tahir experiment once and for all.
Dane Piedt is the young off spinner waiting in the wings. Not only did he top the four-day domestic wicket taking charts last season, but he can also actually turn the ball, even on flat decks. Whether South Africa believe he’s ready for Tests or not hardly matters, he certainly cannot be worse than Tahir.
South Africa are currently in a spot of bother. Their batsmen will have to dig them out of this hole first before Tahir will get another crack at proving he belongs on this team. Consistency and patience will be crucial. On a pitch like this, the leggie cannot afford to make any mistakes that release pressure. Sri Lanka, meanwhile, have the perfect attack to scoop a series-leveling win.
All stats via ESPNCricinfo unless otherwise stated.