Not a happy birthday for Faf du Plessis

South African cricket captain Faf du Plessis speaks at the pre-match news conference ahead of their first test cricket match against Sri Lanka.
South African cricket captain Faf du Plessis speaks at the pre-match news conference ahead of their first test cricket match against Sri Lanka.
Image: REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

What would you want for your 34th birthday? Not your team’s lowest total in Sri Lanka‚ nor to be dismissed by the only seamer in the home side’s attack.

Both were South Africa captain Faf du Plessis’ lot on Friday‚ when he turned 34.

South Africa’s 126 in the first Test in Galle was their worst effort in the 13 Tests they have played on the island.

And medium pacer Suranga Lakmal’s haul of 3/21‚ Du Plessis among them‚ means the visitors can’t lay too much of the blame for their failure on their ancient enemy: subcontinental conditions.

The pitch has offered turn almost from the start of the match on Thursday‚ but it hasn’t veered towards unfair like the surfaces for South Africa’s series in India in November 2015 did.

Instead it is a standard Galle pitch; a dry‚ unyielding site of grim struggle in which the last team standing will earn a begrudged victory.

That team were South Africa in July 2014‚ when they declared their first innings closed at 455/9.

Dean Elgar spent 187 balls on his 103‚ Du Plessis’s 80 came off 196 and JP Duminy curbed his enthusiasm effectively enough to use up 206 deliveries on his 100 not out.

On Friday‚ South Africa’s top score was Du Plessis’ 49‚ and the 88 balls he faced was the most logged by the visitors’ batsmen.

Simply‚ they ran out of the most precious commodity available to a team not from the subcontinent trying to make a fist of things there: patience.

They also ran into opponents who know exactly what they’re doing‚ particularly in their home conditions.

In left-armer Rangana Herath‚ off-spinner Dilruwan Perera and left-arm wrist spinner Lakshan Sandakan‚ the Lankans have what doesn’t make sense to cricket-minded South Africans in the shape of a gun spin attack‚ who took 7/103 between them.

Herath and Perera shared the new ball‚ and it only adds to the otherness of it all that Sandakan stands a full 25 centimetres shorter than the 1.93m Lungi Ngidi.

Who are these strangely skillful players and how might South Africa go about competing with them?

We know‚ of course‚ of Herath but few of us understand his bowling.

How can it be that a portly‚ moustachioed‚ greying 40-year-old uncle has 418 wickets and counting — all of them taken without even thinking about turning the ball?

South Africa struggled in Asia when they returned to international cricket in 1991‚ not least because their government of the day made it unlawful for them to play against anything other than all-white teams.

Then they found a way to win on the subcontinent‚ a way that depended in large part on the superiority of their fast bowlers and to hell with the conditions.

And it’s worked: their winning percentage of 32.6 in Tests in Asia is higher than any team not from the region and better than Bangladesh’s.

But the 3-0 hiding South Africa took in India in 2015 rocked the confidence they had built up over the years.

On Friday’s evidence‚ they still have rebuilding to do.

Happy birthday‚ skipper.

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