July 6, 2014

South Africa's spin challenge

Lessons from the series-victory in 1993 - when South Africa overcame a rampant Murali - and what the current crop of visiting batsmen need to watch out for

South Africa's batsmen need a confident mindset and technique against Sri Lanka's spinners © Getty Images

South Africa's first experience of Sri Lankan cricket was the rebel Arosa Sri Lanka team that arrived in South Africa in 1982. Very little was known about the team but the likes of Tony Opatha, Flavian Aponso and Ajit de Silva became household names. For me, a young cricketer growing up in a country with virtually no media coverage of international cricket and no likelihood of ever being part of it, it was a cricketing godsend.

Although competitive at times, they never proved worthy opposition. Opatha arrived as the team manager and left as the best bowler. De Silva was spoken of as being the best left-arm spinner in the world until he ran into Graeme Pollock on a good Newlands pitch. He bowled very little after that. When the countries next met, in the 1990s, both were quickly becoming forces to be reckoned with in world cricket and were producing some of the best and most exciting talent. None more so than Muttiah Muralitharan.

We first met him in Sri Lanka in 1993, where three Test matches and three one-day internationals were played. We had some knowledge of the Sri Lankan team but not enough to arrive confident about beating them. Understanding how to play in the subcontinent was new to us. Thankfully we had a very good pace attack, which gave our batting room for error.

The tour kicked off with an ODI in Kandy. Sri Lanka would have won convincingly had rain not intervened. Murali was single-handedly winning the match for Sri Lanka and we quickly realised the threat he would pose, not only for the rest of tour but in future encounters. My first look at him, with the full knowledge that he was an offspinner, was that with his wristy release he looked like a legspinner! Sharing this experience with Martin Crowe, I was relieved to hear that this was his first impression as well.

We quickly moved on to the first Test, in Moratuwa. Murali got six in the match and was once again the centrepiece of the Sri Lankan attack. What made him more special was that he bowled long, uninterrupted spells and was very difficult to score off. He bowled 50 overs in an innings at times. It became pretty obvious to us that he was going to get wickets; it was just a question of how many and at what price. In those days he had not developed his full repertoire of variations, but he spun it more than he ever did in his career.

We put our heads together and came up with a game plan. I speak for the right-hand batsmen. He primarily bowled from wide of the crease, never getting close to the stumps because his action did not allow him to do so. It was thus a question of getting well on to off stump, and at times even outside of it, making sure that because of the angle of delivery, a good forward stride meant you would be struck outside the line. You thus took the lbw out of the equation. The same could be said for when playing back. If you were watchful and not playing across the line, the ball would also be hitting you outside the line, and with the amount of spin he was getting, it probably would be missing leg as well.

We quickly learnt that the key against Murali was to watch the ball off the surface, use your bat, play late with soft hands, and if the bounce or spin got big on you, use your front pad or withdraw the bat

The major threat was being caught bat-pad. If he got on top of you, four fielders around the bat were standard. We knew that we had to get one or two of them to move away and the best way was to get them back on the boundary, thus opening up holes on the leg side. The options were to play the slog sweep, hit over the top or along the ground through mid-on. When you got it right it was always surprising how quickly he got sweepers back.

The result was a leg side with more gaps and the chance of the most important scoring option, namely singles, which helped rotate the strike and gave you much needed breathing space at the other end. Limiting the amount of balls he bowled at you meant less chance of him getting you out and running through the team. It was an intriguing game of cat and mouse.

As our experience with him progressed we knew preparation was the key. Batting on placid practice pitches against our fingerspinners was no way to prepare for him. A rough piece of the outfield became the pitch and balls were thrown and bowled in at a good pace. We quickly learnt that the key was to watch the ball off the surface, use your bat, play late with soft hands, and if the bounce or spin got big on you, use your front pad or withdraw the bat.

While South Africa will not have a Murali to deal with on this tour, they will have tough challenges to overcome if they are to be successful. Coming out of a lengthy winter break, the Sri Lankan climate will be a rude awakening. With most of the squad rusty, they will go into the ODI series underdone. Cleverly Sri Lanka have scheduled the ODIs first. As a batsman you would prefer the longer format first as it gives you time to find a rhythm and get some form going.

Practice will help to a degree but net pitches will not be prepared to give South Africa the best chance. The key challenges will be spin and the variations that go with it, reverse swing, and the pace of the game, which is much slower than elsewhere due to the heat and humidity. Practising with old, soft balls will help with timing and dealing with reverse swing. Spinners bowling into the rough in the nets and on the outfield will provide a confidence booster. A confident mindset and technique are essential to find early form, otherwise the likes of Rangana Herath, Ajantha Mendis and Lasith Malinga will be in the wickets and early into the attack.

All subcontinent captains have thrown the spin challenge at South Africa, and this time it will be no different. What will assist South Africa is that because so much more international cricket being played today and the availability of video footage, every player will have a full analysis of the Sri Lankan attack. Sadly, though, in today's times it means knowledge, innovation, skill and experience, once priceless, are not such formidable weapons anymore.

It also makes accomplishments and the joy of sharing them with your team-mates, not so memorable either. If South Africa win the ODI series and draw the Test series, they can rightly consider it a very successful tour. It's a big ask, and the probability of this result seems low.

Daryll Cullinan played 70 Tests for South Africa between 1993 and 2001