The Durban jinx continues to baffle
There is something a little comical about a confused cricketer. Usually, he starts off smiling, inexplicably so. Chances are a nervous giggle will follow, his eyes will shift, fingers will be twiddled and answers will be searched for from thin air; or if they are at Kingsmead from thick air because the humidity makes it so.
Today, that confused cricketer was Hashim Amla. Usually sagely and sensible, Amla was a baffled, bumbling semblance of himself when he was asked to explain why and how South Africa were shot out for 168, their lowest ever total against Sri Lanka, on a fairly tame pitch. "I don't know, I can't give you a straightforward answer because I am not too sure," he said. "If we knew then we wouldn't find ourselves in the position that we are in."
The truth is that collapses in Durban have become a pattern for South Africa and no-one seems to know why. Last year, India bowled South Africa out for 131 in their first innings via a combination of Zaheer Khan's swing, Harbhajan Singh's spin and Sreesanth's snide comments.
The year before that, England ripped through South Africa, dismissing them for 133 in their second innings. Graeme Swann took five wickets and Stuart Broad's four wrapped it up. The year before, it was Australia, with Mitchell Johnson in the form of his career, who bundled South Africa out for 138 at Kingsmead.
The Durban jinx may sound like something out of the Neil McKenzie book of superstitions but it is becoming a reality that sticking your bat to the ceiling may not help solve. There are several theories that have been concocted to explain why Kinsgmead is becoming less of a home and more of an away venue for South Africa.
One of them suggests that because the Test starts in the heart of the festive season, and the families of the players travel with them, the intensity may not be the same. Graeme Smith, AB de Villiers and Ashwell Prince all made reference to the add-ons being a possible distraction in the lead-up to this match. It may be harsh to ban loved ones from visiting the players during the holidays, but if they are to blame for batting collapses there may be no choice.
Another possible reason is complacency. Last year, South Africa came to Durban on the back of thrashing India by an innings and 25 runs in Centurion. Before both the home series against England and the one against Australia, South Africa had beaten the opposition in away series and may have expected to repeat the results in their own conditions.
Then, there are Amla's attempts at explanations, which pointed to the lack of application of the batting line-up and the fact that conditions suited swing bowlers rather than outright pace. "We played some uncharacteristic shots that got us in trouble. They bowled quite well and there were a few soft dismissals on our part. The pitch kind of suited not so much quick bowling but a bit more medium pace and they hit good areas."
Marchant de Lange's seven-for somewhat disproves that theory and casts the spotlight even more directly on the number of poor shots South Africa's batsmen played. The pitch was not particularly troublesome, the bowling was accurate and the batting inept, and it cost South Africa dearly. "We are very disappointed," Amla said. "We knew it was not a 160 or 170 track."
South Africa are now in a situation where they are forced to rely on their bowlers, again, and Amla said he hoped they could bail the batsmen out. "Fortunately, picking up [Tillakaratne] Dilshan late in the day helped. He is a dangerous player; it's a big blow for them and a fantastic wicket for us to get. The bowlers have done a fantastic job over the last few matches of keeping it simple and making it difficult for the batters, and if we can get some early wickets tomorrow we can put them under pressure."
Then, the real work will start. With the pitch set to deteriorate further and chances of rain appearing to have gone away, batting in the second innings will be a challenging task. "It will be difficult to chase a score but if you bat well, like [Thilan] Samaraweera, who batted really well, left well and applied himself, you can score runs," Amla said.