'We need to trust our defence' - Faf du Plessis
Starting with their visit to Pakistan in October 2007‚ South Africa have played 18 Test series away or on neutral grounds — and lost only two of them.
In both those series they lost the first match of the rubber‚ as they did against Sri Lanka in Galle last week.
So history says South Africa’s record could take another dent in Colombo‚ where the second Test starts on Friday.
Both times South Africa have finished on the wrong end of the equation in those 18 rubbers‚ in India and November and December 2015 and in England last July and August‚ conditions have been unusually dominant factors.
In India the Nagpur groundsman cheated South Africa out of a fair shot at victory — the pitch was rated “poor” by the International Cricket Council — and the other surfaces weren’t much better.
In England the visitors lost a battle keenly fought by both sets of batsmen struggling on pitches so damnably difficult to come to terms with that only three centuries were scored in four matches.
In Galle last week South Africa gave the pitch too much respect and in the process crashed to totals of 126 and 73‚ and with that defeat by 278 runs in less than three days.
Besides themselves‚ the architects of South Africa’s defeat were the Lankans’ trident of spinners‚ left-armer Rangana Herath‚ off-spinner Dilruwan Perera and left-arm wrist spinner Lakshan Sandakan — who claimed all but three of the visitors’ 20 wickets.
“In the first Test we were quite off the boil in a lot of areas‚” Faf du Plessis admitted to reporters in Colombo on Thursday.
“We have been also a team that starts late unfortunately. Then we start making better decisions.
“Hopefully we can do that in this test match although we know its going to be tough.
“In the sub-continent drawing a series is as good as winning a series. It’s tough and that’s what the best teams do.”
South Africa have been among those teams since making their Asian debut in Sri Lanka in August 1993‚ winning seven series there and drawing and losing six each.
In terms of matches in the sub-continent‚ South Africa have won and lost 15 each and drawn 16.
Friday’s game‚ then‚ is important in several respects. And the key to the way it will pan out is how South Africa’s batsmen handle the Lankan spinners.
“The thing that let us down in the first Test was that we didn’t trust our defence well enough‚” Du Plessis said.
“The important part of playing spin in Test cricket is trusting your defence.
“Obviously we need to try and put pressure back on the spinners as well with what you are doing.
“The guys worked really hard on their gameplan and trying to be positive against spin‚ which is an element of playing spinners well.
“But you have to also trust your defence‚ so there’s two parts to it. That was the difference between how Sri Lanka played spin and how we played spin — especially Dimuth Karunaratne [who scored 158 not out and 60]‚ who didn’t take too many risks; he just played with good defence.
"If you take him away I think both teams struggled to play spin well.”
The Lankan batsmen are not Du Plessis’ problem. It’s the South Africans he needs to worry about.
“There was a carelessness about our batting‚” he said. “In test cricket you have to learn how to put a bowler under pressure.
“Once again I take the example of Dimuth as to how he played. As a captain I wanted him to take risks but he didn’t take risks.”
Du Plessis said South Africa had yet to finalise their team‚ but indicated that they would play an extra batsman.
That could mean a quiet few days ahead for Vernon Philander‚ who bowled only 11 overs and took just one wicket in the first Test.
Along with everything else that happened in Galle‚ Dale Steyn equalled Shaun Pollock as the highest Test wicket-taker for South Africa.
What might Steyn’s reward from his captain be the next time he strikes?
“I’ll give him a kiss on the cheek.”