July 9, 2014

A tale of two SSC Tests

In 1993 and 2006, South Africa's bowlers had vastly different results in Colombo. Brett Schultz and Makhaya Ntini look back

Makhaya Ntini with Ashwell Prince after a dropped catch on day two of the 2006 SSC Test. Little did they know... © AFP

Sri Lanka is known as the pearl of the Indian Ocean, the island of serendipity, and has been labelled "a nirvana for beach lovers" by Lonely Planet, but Makhaya Ntini knows differently. "Let me tell you, that place is not a playground," he said.

You may think the harsh assessment stems from the narrow escape he had eight years ago when he left the Liberty Plaza Shopping Centre minutes before the bomb blast that prompted South Africa's withdrawal from their tour, but that incident is not what colours Ntini's memory of the country. Instead it is what happened two weeks before.

Ntini was part of the South African team that spent 13 hours and two minutes on the field at the SSC, watching Sri Lanka's batsmen (read Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene) rack up what Ntini counted as "700,000 runs". It was actually 756, but it contained a world-record 624-run partnership that still stands today.

"It was just flat. There was nothing in that wicket. Just nothing," Ntini remembered. "Frustration is an understatement. Every time we looked at the scorecard, it was as though they were 10 or 20 runs to get to another milestone - 400, 500, 600. There was no end."

Although South Africa were seasoned international travellers by then, they were still found wanting on surfaces that lacked pace and bounce and took turn. They lost both Tests in the series, sending them back to the starting blocks as far as subcontinental strategy was concerned. The forgotten fact is that 13 years earlier South Africa seemed to be in a better place in that regard.

In 1993 they made their first trip to Sri Lanka, which included the first Tests they would play in Asia. They weren't wary, just unsure. So much so that they may not have realised they were probably favourites. Sri Lanka were also relative newcomers to the Test arena, and South Africa travelled with a full-strength side, unlike in 2006, when they were depleted.

"We were so new to world cricket, we had no idea what to expect there," Brett Schultz said. "It was a real experience, even though we were limited with what we could do because of the civil war. We stayed at one hotel in Colombo for about five weeks, so there was a bit of cabin fever. The heat and humidity combined with the pitches was the most different thing for us."

Some things never change and the current South African squad has also cited the weather as a challenge, although they are much better equipped to deal with it than teams of the past. "Things weren't that scientific then," Schultz said. "We didn't think beyond getting as much fluid in as we could. I would drink 12 to 15 litres of water a day, and more on match days. After every over, I'd drink a 500ml bottle."

He bowled 124.1 overs in the three Tests, which means he drank about 62 litres in the time he was on the field. It must have helped because his returns exceeded all expectations. He took 20 wickets at 16.30 to lead the wicket-takers' list across both sides, and his nine-for in the second Test, at the SSC, was instrumental in South Africa's win.

The left-hander's angle gave Schultz an advantage, but he remembered another. "We tried to use the pitch in a way that the ball would get scuffed up," he said. "At first we were a little surprised by how quickly the ball got old. We'd had about ten overs of the new ball and then that was it. But after another 20 or so overs, we could get it reversing and that was important."

Morne Morkel has already indicated that South Africa will try to make use of that art again. "Reverse swing is going to be key - we have to get the ball to reverse quite quickly and get the top order under pressure with that kind of thing," he said before the team left for Sri Lanka. Morkel may not be the likeliest man to do that, but he spent the IPL picking the brain of Wasim Akram, who was his bowling coach at Kolkata Knight Riders, for "different ideas" about bowling in the subcontinent, some of which he may impart to Dale Steyn for use.

As Steyn demonstrated late last year in the UAE, and more recently against Australia in Port Elizabeth this March, he can make the most of a moving ball. He is also the only member of South Africa's attack to have played a Test in Sri Lanka and may want to revisit the 2006 tour in preparation for this one, particularly when it comes to patience.

"He learnt tough lessons on that tour," Ntini said. "At that time he was recognised as one of the youngsters who could really be a star for South Africa, and when you are in that position you want to show how quick you are, even if that does not work."

Steyn discovered that express pace was not the best option in those 13 hours at the SSC. Ntini, who was leading the attack in Shaun Pollock's absence, convinced him to try a different approach, using unwavering concentration, discipline and the odd surprise.

Although South Africa were tiring and even appeared to let the game drift, Ntini said he believed the pack could not stop hunting for wickets because if they did, it would only worsen their plight. "We had no choice. We had to keep trying to get wickets because otherwise they would just make us stay out there more. They showed us that they were not going to declare and we knew if we bowled negatively, we would not get wickets, so we just kept trying to get one of them - Sanga or Mahela - out."

Ntini was targeting Jayawardene in particular because "he was closing in on Brian Lara's record and I didn't want a West Indian record overturned". Eventually Andre Nel accounted for Jayawardene, beating him for lack of bounce.

Sri Lanka declared when Jayawardene was dismissed, to give South Africa's bowlers much-needed feet-up time while their batsmen fought it out. They batted for ten hours and 20 minutes but it was not enough. "What made it worse was that afterwards, Kumar and Mahela were given cars by Peugeot," Ntini joked. "We were the ones who needed cars after the amount of time we spent out there."

Sri Lankan surfaces have changed considerably from that tour. These days they offer a little something - because the country has its own pace arsenal and because they can no longer call on Muttiah Muralitharan, who Schultz remembers "bowling from one end all day" to win matches single-handedly. That alone will make the South Africa squad more comfortable on this trip but there is another reason Ntini thinks they can expect to have a less arduous time than in 2006.

"This time they are going to have an option of at least two spinners. We had just one spinner with us and it made it difficult," Ntini said. "With two guys, they can have them either concentrating on one side with the quicks from the other, or bowling together to give the seamers a bit of a rest."

In 2006, South Africa's only spinner was Nicky Boje, who managed five wickets in the series. His main job was to hold an end, and his economy rate of 3.23 was evidence of that. In 1993, South Africa had Pat Symcox and Clive Eksteen, who provided a mix of attack and defence. Their returns were hidden in the shadows of Schultz's success, and Eksteen only played one match, but having the choice seemed to reassure.

On this tour, South Africa have gone one better. They have three spin candidates, although only two are likely to feature in the starting XI. Imran Tahir will be tasked with taking wickets and JP Duminy will be made to do a holding job. Dane Piedt lurks in the wings, with the ability to do both, and while it will be tempting to play him, South Africa will not want to sacrifice a seamer.

Schultz thinks it's a good dilemma to have because it will keep the quicks thinking. "Test cricket is about strategy, getting the slips in place, knowing the lines to bowl. If you can get that right, even though this is not an easy tour, strange things can happen," he said.

Strange like South Africa's relationship with the SSC. It holds both their best and worst memories of touring Sri Lanka - the win in 1993 and the toil in 2006. Maybe 2014 is the time to turn it into their own playground.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dimuthu on July 13, 2014, 18:02 GMT

    South Africans seem to think "no grass" means the same as flat, just because they don't have bowlers to utilise turning conditions. Ntini was a great ambassador for the game, but let's be honest - his bowling was very one dimensional. Excellent pace and bounce, and very awkward length too. This made him a very difficult bowler to face in certain conditions. Just because he had no answer to the the pitch and 2 great batsmen at their absolute peak, doesn't warrant calling that pitch SO flat. If it was a dull draw where both teams scored 600-700, that would be justified. However, Dilhara Fernando got 4 wickets in the first morning, and then the track turned for Murali to take 6 in the 2nd innings.

  • John on July 10, 2014, 17:12 GMT

    Well, if it was as flat as Ntini describes, How come SA got bowled out for 160 something in the first innings ? Btw, Ntini was a great bowler and a very pleasant individual. A few weeks ago, I was watching "Survivor South Africa" online and was very surprised / glad to see Ntini there as a special guest :) We certainly miss his big smile on the cricket field today.

  • Roshan on July 10, 2014, 14:04 GMT

    Sri Lanka will be mighty relieved that the South Africans do not have a left armer of the caliber of Brett Schultz in '93. He was an absolute terror and the Lankans had much more trouble facing him than his more famous partner, a certain Allan Donald. Schultz was magnificent and in fact I will go on to say no pace bowler, not even Wasim, caused such consternation for the top order. Sadly much like Shane Bond, Shultz was lost to cricket much earlier than it should have been.

  • Sheethal on July 10, 2014, 8:29 GMT

    SSC like most other pitches in SL is absolute flat like a road.....I still remember the match where Ind made 550 odd & declared in colombo premadasa...guess what SL played for remaining 3 days of the match & made 900 odd!!! Recently Bangladesh made 600 odd & match ended in draw!!

  • Shehan on July 10, 2014, 8:21 GMT

    @ BellCurve - Yes i do agree with the point u made about the pitches, but that SSC pitch also was an evolving pitch with something for the everybody throughout the match. On the first day 12 wickets fell with 8 to the fast bowlers from both sides. Although Steyn managed to get rid of the SL openers quickly with the new ball, SA couldn't break the all important partnership of Sanga and Mahela on that day when the pitch was supporting the fast bowlers. It was the turning point of the game as the couple went on to complete a hundred run partnership on the first day afternoon, and then batted on and on as Makhaya Ntini and co didn't trouble them enough on a pitch that slowly started to support the batsman and spinners. Though Nicky Boje was a good spinner, he wasn't good enough to troubled Sanga and Mahela who were in sublime form in that game.

  • Android on July 9, 2014, 16:15 GMT

    I think itbis fair to compare 1993 and 2006. since during 1993 sri lanka were building the side and there were not much class apart from aravinda n arjuna. even murali didn had the doosra thay time so the team set up is entirely different. during 1993 sri lanka only had the upper hand against sa becoz sa also a new comer. pak and india always thrash sl

  • Dummy4 on July 9, 2014, 14:17 GMT

    South Africa are in a far better position now than they were in 2006. AB and Amla can play spin really well and they also have a great record in Asia. Steyn is an outstanding bowler and has been known to bowl well in unhelpful conditions. He had not yet developed into a world class performer by 2006. SL's bowling is also a far lesser threat without Murali. I'm hoping for a good contest this time around. The worst thing about the tour is that it's a two-test series. There should have been at least 3 tests.

  • Deon on July 9, 2014, 11:13 GMT

    @Shehan_W - A pitch is not a static thing. It evolves throughout the match. The SSC pitch in particular tends to be flat on the first 2-3 days, and then starts to crack up and consequently provide both grip and inconsistent bounce, which help both spin and seam bowling. I am a massive fan of Sanga. He is my favourite modern batsman after Kallis. But in that Test, Sanga certainly did benefit from batsmen-friendly conditions.

  • Pasenadee on July 9, 2014, 9:36 GMT

    "It was just flat. There was nothing in that wicket. Just nothing," Ntini - RUBBISH! Look at that scorecard. Sri Lanka's fast bowler Dilhara Fernando took 4 wickets and Maharoof the medium pacer took 2 in the first innings. Fernando would be lucky to make the domestic league in South Africa!

  • Shehan on July 9, 2014, 5:04 GMT

    The SSC pitch where Sanga and Mahela made the World Record wasn't a flat one as Makhaya Ntini suggests in this article. None of the other batsman from both sides managed to score a century in that match.

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