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The Sri Lankan challenge

South Africa have a superb overseas record in the last few years, but in Sri Lanka their batsmen and spinners have struggled

S Rajesh

July 4, 2014

Comments: 16 | Text size: A | A

Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers have been superb in other parts of Asia, but they'll have to turn on the run-tap in Sri Lanka over the next four weeks © AFP

One of the key strengths of the South African team over the last several years has been their ability to play well and win away from home. Since the beginning of 2007, they've played 12 Test series overseas and haven't lost a single one, winning eight and drawing four. (The drawn ones have all been in India and the UAE.) No team has been anywhere near as impressive in overseas Tests during this period: South Africa's win-loss record is 16-5, while the next best is Australia's 14-17. During this period, South Africa have won Test series twice each in England and Australia, and once each in Pakistan, New Zealand, West Indies and Bangladesh.

One prominent country missing from the list is Sri Lanka: South Africa last toured there for a Test series in July 2006 - eight years ago - losing 2-0; it was also their last away series defeat in Tests. Before that, they had played a two-Test series there in 2004, losing 1-0. They recently played a bilateral ODI series there last year, losing 4-1; before that, they had played a bilateral ODI series in Sri Lanka in 2004 - the result then was 0-5.

These results indicate why the next month is so crucial for South Africa. They have Hashim Amla as their new captain in Tests, while AB de Villiers, their leader in ODIs, oversaw the 1-4 defeat a year ago; the priority for both will be to redress South Africa's skewed record in both forms of the game in Sri Lanka.

Since 2000, South Africa's win-loss ratios in Tests and ODIs are much worse in Sri Lanka than in any other country. Overall during this period, they've won almost two matches per defeat in both formats - the ratio is 1.87 in Tests, and 1.76 in ODIs. Yet, in Sri Lanka they've been abysmal, with a 0.25 win-loss ratio in Tests, and 0.38 in ODIs.

Their Sri Lankan record is all the more surprising because they've generally done well in other countries in Asia. South Africa have had plenty of success in India, winning four out of nine Tests, and have also done well in Pakistan and the UAE. In Asian countries other than Sri Lanka, they have a 10-5 record in Tests (6-5 excluding Bangladesh) and 34-21 in ODIs (27-19 excluding Bangladesh). Yet, the Sri Lankan puzzle is something they've been unable to solve.

South Africa in Tests and ODIs, in each country since 2000 (Qual: 4 Tests, 8 ODIs)
  Tests ODIs
Host country Matches W/ L Ratio Matches W/ L Ratio
Bangladesh 4 4/ 0 - 10 7/ 2 3.50
West Indies 12 6/ 1 6.00 27 21/ 6 3.50
South Africa 74 44/ 19 2.31 147 100/ 38 2.63
England 12 6/ 3 2.00 23 8/ 12 0.66
New Zealand 6 2/ 1 2.00 9 4/ 5 0.80
India 9 4/ 3 1.33 21 11/ 10 1.10
Pakistan 4 1/ 1 1.00 10 6/ 4 1.50
UAE 4 1/ 1 1.00 15 10/ 5 2.00
Australia 12 3/ 6 0.50 26 14/ 11 1.27
Sri Lanka 7 1/ 4 0.25 18 5/ 13 0.38
Total 146 73/ 39 1.87 327 200/ 113 1.76

In ODIs, South Africa's numbers in Sri Lanka would look even worse if not for their matches against other teams in that country: South Africa have a 4-1 record here against other teams, having beaten Pakistan twice, and West Indies and Kenya once each. Their only defeat was a horrible choke against India in the semi-finals of the Champions Trophy in 2002, when they were 194 for 1 after 38 overs, chasing 262, and still managed to lose by ten runs.

Against Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka, though, South Africa's record is quite embarrassing - one win, 12 defeats. It's quite clearly their worst record in any country in ODIs. They've lost quite a few in England too, but many of those defeats came after they had won gruelling Test series' there. In Sri Lanka, there have been no such excuses. Not only have there been losses, but the margins have been embarrassing as well: on the last tour, South Africa lost three of the matches by 180 runs, 128 runs, and eight wickets. In fact, there is no difference between the records for South Africa and Bangladesh, in ODIs against Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka since 2000.

The averages indicate they have been let down by both their batsmen and their bowlers in Sri Lanka, but the batsmen have probably done worse. When playing in India, Pakistan or the UAE, the South African batsmen average 35.11, at a run rate of 5.04 per over; with the ball, they average 26.12, and concede 4.81 runs per over. In Sri Lanka, the batting has been woeful, with an average of under 23 and a scoring rate of 4.49; the bowlers have been poor too, averaging 40.26 at an economy rate of 5.24.

South Africa's Test and ODI record in Asia, since 2000
  Tests ODIs
  Matches W/ L Ratio Matches W/ L Ratio
in Asia (excl SL) 21 10/ 5 2.00 56 34/ 21 1.61
in Sri Lanka 7 1/ 4 0.25 18 5/ 13 0.38
South Africa's away ODI record against each opposition since Jan 2000
Versus Matches W/ L Ratio Bat ave Run rate Bowl ave Econ rate
Bangladesh 6 6/ 0 - 58.47 4.99 15.85 3.57
Zimbabwe 6 6/ 0 - 53.56 5.80 28.13 4.36
West Indies 18 16/ 2 8.00 45.36 5.18 25.21 4.62
Pakistan 10 6/ 4 1.50 34.81 4.85 27.72 4.71
Australia 16 7/ 8 0.87 32.46 4.70 31.00 5.13
India 13 6/ 7 0.85 41.39 5.45 36.29 5.58
New Zealand 9 4/ 5 0.80 37.79 5.18 32.34 5.10
England 15 3/ 10 0.30 25.46 4.67 39.28 5.15
Sri Lanka 13 1/ 12 0.08 22.65 4.49 40.26 5.24

The numbers for individual batsmen further underscore how some of them have struggled badly in Sri Lanka. JP Duminy has scored 194 from ten innings, which is a far cry from his stats in other parts of Asia; ditto for Herschelle Gibbs as well. Faf du Plessis had a horror series in 2013, and needs to make amends. AB de Villiers got starts but had a highest of only 51 in five innings, which is less than he has averaged in other parts of Asia.

South African batsmen in ODIs in Asia since 2000
  v Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka in Ind, Pak, UAE
Batsman Matches Average SR Matches Average SR
Jacques Kallis 8 47.85 63.20 38 45.82 72.36
JP Duminy 10 19.40 70.80 18 43.76 86.06
Graeme Smith 5 27.80 68.81 27 36.38 76.35
AB de Villiers 5 27.40 81.54 27 59.76 94.00
David Miller 5 40.66 91.72 9 14.25 71.69
Herschelle Gibbs 5 17.80 59.73 25 38.50 84.95
Hashim Amla 2 47.50 95.95 15 51.35 95.86
Faf du Plessis 5 11.40 51.35 10 29.42 63.58

The lack of spin options in the current South African squad is a concern for many, and it has been a handicap on previous tours as well. Though they haven't done too badly on the economy front, South Africa's spinners have hardly been wicket-taking options in ODIs against Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka, taking only 15 wickets at an average of 63.80; in these same 13 matches, Sri Lanka's spinners have taken 73 South African wickets, at an average of 22.43, and an economy rate of 4.17.

South African bowlers in ODIs in Asia, since 2000
  v Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka in Ind, Pak, UAE
  Wickets Average Econ rate Wickets Average Econ rate
Pace 55 38.74 5.14 276 27.05 4.65
Spin 15 63.80 4.97 75 34.34 4.86

In Tests too, South Africa have had too many batsmen and bowlers struggling to make an impact. A team that has averaged 39.36 with the bat and 35.07 with the ball in away Tests since 2000, has averaged 28.28 with the bat and 42.19 with the ball in Sri Lanka.

With the bat, only one batsman - de Villiers - has averaged more than 40. Even the usually prolific Kallis averaged only 35.33 in Tests in Sri Lanka, compared to 64.64 in India, Pakistan and the UAE. In matches in the past, Gary Kirsten, Neil McKenzie and Amla have averaged more than 50 in other parts of Asia, but less than 25 in Sri Lanka. Amla has played only two Tests in Sri Lanka, but as captain of the ship this time, he has an opportunity to rectify the numbers for himself and his team.

As in ODIs, South Africa's spinners have struggled to make an impact in Sri Lanka in Tests as well, conceding 50 runs per wicket. The quick bowlers have done a bit better, but not as well as they have in other parts of Asia: Dale Steyn has 49 wickets from 11 Tests in India, Pakistan and the UAE, at an average of 24.63 and a strike rate of 43.7, but in two Tests in Sri Lanka he has averaged 36.50. However, compared to the fast bowlers, it's the South African spinners who have struggled more in Sri Lanka, against batsmen who are particularly adept at playing spin bowling. Clearly, Imran Tahir (in Tests and ODIs), Aaron Phangiso (ODIs) and Dane Piedt (Tests), the spin specialists for South Africa, will have their work cut out over the next four weeks.

South African batsmen in Tests in Asia since 2000
  v Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka in Ind, Pak, UAE
  Matches Average 100s/ 50s Matches Average 100s/ 50s
Mark Boucher 7 30.33 0/ 4 12 28.64 0/ 3
Jacques Kallis 5 35.33 0/ 3 17 64.64 8/ 4
AB de Villiers 2 54.25 0/ 2 11 72.26 3/ 3
Herschelle Gibbs 3 22.16 0/ 1 6 36.54 0/ 3
Gary Kirsten 3 21.83 0/ 1 4 70.00 1/ 4
Hashim Amla 2 17.25 0/ 0 11 77.23 6/ 5
Neil McKenzie 3 9.00 0/ 0 5 52.12 1/ 1
South African bowlers in Tests in Asia, since 2000
  v Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka in Ind, Pak, UAE
  Wickets Average Strike rate Wickets Average Strike rate
Pace 67 38.07 70.8 168 31.93 65.6
Spin 31 50.29 89.4 75 39.14 80.4

S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. Follow him on Twitter

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Posted by SLSup on (July 4, 2014, 15:06 GMT)

Rajesh, your Numbers Game submissions are always quite incisive, easier to relate to and, therefore, easy to comprehend. However, whenever you read comments by fans of cricket there is always this mental block in some - based on assumptions - that SL is a dust-bowl. I did a statsguru analysis of Tests played in SA and SL from 1980 onward and here are the numbers:

SL has played 114 Tests in SL @ 970.74 runs per Test (SL won 47 Tests)

SA has played 110 Tests in SA @ 985.08 runs per Test (SA won 63 Tests)

I don't see any difference in how the games panned out as far as batsmen's ability to score in SA or SL - no matter who was playing in the Test. It is clear some players will do better at home than away but that is consistent, usually, with all players.

Posted by SLslider_original on (July 4, 2014, 14:14 GMT)

@ sidh78: This article doesn't say anything about result-less matches as seen in Ind flat decks. But it says about Saffas poor run at the hand of SL. It says the results are predominately in favour of SL compared with Saffas. First try to understand the article before commenting as typical.

Posted by SLslider_original on (July 4, 2014, 14:10 GMT)

@ITJOBSUCKS : Also Ind is the only team who had a longest away win less streak..:)

Posted by karachidude23 on (July 4, 2014, 11:17 GMT)

Thanks for the article Rajesh.I am dumbstruck by the fantastic performance of Srilanka against SA in the past, i didn't realize, kudos to SL brothers and hoping for some cheers for SA brothers too this series!

Posted by priceless1 on (July 4, 2014, 10:55 GMT)

one main reason for SL to have a such a dominance at home is the performance of MJ , he always piles on runs doesn't matter who the opposition is

Posted by ITJOBSUCKS on (July 4, 2014, 9:34 GMT)

@Atiq Butt @ Annihalator I forgot to check Pak....AFAIK,SL is yet to win a match in Aus & i don't think Pak has won/drawn any Test series in Aus.....In fact, Pak has lost all the last 12 matches but 1 in Aus!!! So, Ind is the ONLY SC team to drew a series in Aus in 2004 & also came ver close in winning a series in 2008.....Ind would've won if bucknor had not made so many blunders(gave 8/9 decisions in favour of Aus)!!!

Posted by   on (July 4, 2014, 8:03 GMT)

@ITJOBSUCKS do you remembered 97 test series Pak vs SA where Pak was the first side to draw the test series with SA in SA. similarly the first team to win ODI series in SA.

Posted by twineddy on (July 4, 2014, 7:48 GMT)

@sidh78 The real reason for draws is weather. SL is blessed with lots of rain though out the year. If SL is a dry country like India, and if we could have full 5 days of cricket, lot of matches could have ended in a result.

Posted by sidh78 on (July 4, 2014, 7:20 GMT)

Sl pitches are flatest in the world.thats why above 900 runs in a inning scored in SL.wow!! also even bangaladesh batsmans score near 600 runs in a inning in SL.this shows the quality of pitches in SL.thats why most test matches in sl ended in draw.but indian pitches are spining and turning but initialy good for batting & fast seam bowling.thats why in last 30 test matches played in india, 27 matches gave result.

Posted by   on (July 4, 2014, 6:39 GMT)

It will be interesting too see, how many wickets Murali had taken on all these tours, and I guess that would be the real reason.

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S Rajesh Stats editor Every week the Numbers Game takes a look at the story behind the stats, with an original slant on facts and figures. The column is edited by S Rajesh, ESPNcricinfo's stats editor in Bangalore. He did an MBA in marketing, and then worked for a year in advertising, before deciding to chuck it in favour of a job which would combine the pleasures of watching cricket and writing about it. The intense office cricket matches were an added bonus.
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