South Africa Face Familiar Test of Character to Avoid Sri Lanka Loss in Colombo

Antoinette MullerFeatured ColumnistJuly 27, 2014

South African batsman Dean Elgar celebrates scoring a century, as teammate Faf du Plessis congratulates him during the first day of the first test cricket match between Sri Lanka and South Africa in Galle, Sri Lanka, Wednesday, July 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)
Eranga Jayawardena/Associated Press

Adelaide 2012 and Johannesburg 2013 will both be in South Africa’s minds when they step out to try and save the second Test against Sri Lanka on Monday. The South Africans will be required to bat for a minimum of 98 overs needing an unlikely 331 runs to win the second Test. A spin inquisition awaits a side who once again have to show that their resilience is not on par with toilet paper.

Having folded in their first innings, South Africa face an uphill battle to survive until the end of play tomorrow, but they have already made it clear that they are thinking ahead.

After Alviro Petersen failed yet again, Quinton de Kock was promoted up the order to help guard the likes of Faf du Plessis, Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers for Monday’s big dig. It will be a big test for De Kock, something he seems to have encountered quite regularly in his brief career so far as a Test player. Patience is not one of his virtues but in the dying minutes of the fourth day, he showed admirable intent.

In stark contrast, Petersen’s performances in this series have been nothing short of dubious.

As a senior player, more was expected of him, especially considering Petersen played a part in helping South Africa save the Test against India in Johannesburg last year with a three-and-a-half-hour stint at the top of the order.

However, his performances have been grossly inconsistent in the last year-and-a-half. When his side needed him most this time, he flapped and failed. Petersen has not scored a hundred since January 2013. He has passed fifty just thrice since then and averages just 23.25 in his last 21 innings. His early departure now leaves the initial task up to two rookies.

Time and wickets will be a precious commodity for the visitors tomorrow. They need to avoid defeat in order to wrap up the series 1-0 and regain their No. 1 ranking from Australia.

But the task, however steep, is hardly one that’s unfamiliar to them. They have been here twice before in the last two years, twice before they have managed to find a way to claw themselves out of a very big hole.

When South Africa fought so valiantly in Adelaide back in 2012, they said that everything was broken up into mini sessions.

Survive an over, survive until the drinks break and then, survive until the innings break.

Time slowed down, runs became irrelevant and survival became the one and only goal. The scoreboard moved along painstakingly slow and De Villiers and Du Plessis were pictures of concentration as they laboured for 68 overs for an 89-run partnership accrued over almost 12 hours at the crease between them. By the sheer definition of “Test” cricket, there is no greater test than that.

There is not much difference this time around.

With the pitch offering just enough turn and Sri Lanka packed with men who can turn it, South Africa face a stern test of character.

The task needs to be broken down into digestible chunks. First, De Kock needs to try and bat until lunch. As much as his cavalier urges might consume him, there will be zero tolerance for being irresponsible.

Should he manage to suppress his natural game for long enough, South Africa might even start thinking about going for the improbable win, but that should not be the first priority.

This is a team who have been constantly ridiculed for how they handle pressure in limited overs knockout games, but this is Test cricket. And this is a team who have shown before that they have the mettle to push through the tough times in the longest format of the game. This is another such opportunity and, if they manage to pull it off, it will come with the fitting reward of being No. 1 in the world once again.


Quotes obtained firsthand, stats via ESPN Cricinfo.