Sri Lanka v South Africa, 2nd ODI, Colombo July 24, 2013

Spin fast becoming the bane of SA's ODI game

As South Africa look to improve a dismal record in Sri Lanka, their spinners will have to rethink their strategy and find better ways to utilise the helpful conditions

One of the more stunning statistics in ODI cricket is South Africa's record in Sri Lanka. The teams have now played 12 completed matches on the island. Out of those, South Africa have won one. Their captain in that game was Kepler Wessels, and current chief selector Andrew Hudson opened the batting. In almost two decades since, they haven't even come close to the hosts, and so far in this series, they have been outplayed just as comprehensively.

It has not helped that South Africa's best bowler and best batsman have not played in the series. Dale Steyn was ruled out of the tour through injury, and Hashim Amla missed the first match with neck spasms, before sustaining a grade one tear in his groin while fielding in the second. But another one of South Africa's woes, which has little to do with either player, has been the bane of their ODI game for long.

Spin bowlers Robin Peterson and Aaron Phangiso bowled their full quota of overs on Tuesday, and took one wicket apiece. On the surface, this not have seemed a poor return, but in South Africa's innings, their inadequacy was laid bare. Tillakaratne Dilshan, who is better than a part-timer perhaps, but still no ace with the ball, out-bowled South Africa's frontline spinners and extracted more turn than either. His modes of attack were more creative - flighting several outside off before darting a couple on the toes to finish the over. The visiting slow bowlers persevered on a humdrum line, without major variations to flight or pace, and reaped results that fit their bland exertion. On a pitch as slow as this worn Premadasa track, Sri Lanka's 223 for 9 was always going to be a testing total, even with Amla opening the innings and without the intermittent rain.

Part of South Africa's problem is that their opponents are too adept at defusing left-arm spin. Sri Lankan batsmen are weaned on the stuff and the domestic competitions have lately been inundated with high-quality, left-arm spinners. There are also five left-handed batsmen in Sri Lanka's top eight, who will not be daunted by the ball turning into them, particularly as neither spinner possesses a delivery that spins the other way. So thin are South Africa's slow-bowling stocks, there is also no offspinner to call on apart from the part-time efforts of JP Duminy. Imran Tahir, meanwhile, appears to have been discarded like so many South African slow bowlers before him.

Yet, even given these handicaps, Peterson and Phangiso have hardly made the best of helpful conditions. Rangana Herath may be the finest proponent of the left-arm slow bowlers' craft in the world, but he still should not have more wickets from 12.5 overs than all three of South Africa's spinners combined, who have collectively sent down 44. Herath is bowling in familiar conditions, but he is effective the world over, and adapts his game cleverly and quickly. He is no great spinner of the ball either and his guile, calculation and subtlety may mark the route to progress for the visiting spinners. Their captain might also be persuaded to set more attacking fields in conditions where slow bowlers should be dismissing batsmen.

The action now moves to Pallekele, where South Africa may have some respite on a surface that tends to be faster, bouncier and more seam-friendly than the track they have encountered in Colombo. Their pace attack may set about hiding the flaws in the slow-bowling there, but for a side aspiring to build a cricketing dynasty, that cannot suffice. A greater emphasis on developing spin-bowling talent - at least at the top-level, may light the way, or perhaps a prodigy must be unearthed and moulded to plug the mighty hole in an otherwise impressive ship.

Less than a year ago, they were the top team in all formats, but now they have slid to fifth in the ODI rankings, behind Sri Lanka, and have ceded the top T20 spot to the same team. Their limited-overs woes should serve as an ongoing reminder to South Africa that although they fly through in Tests on their vicious pace attack and a formidable row of batsmen, there may come a day when they succumb to their kryptonite, even in the longest format.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on July 25, 2013, 9:58 GMT

    Apologies. I had said Rangana Herath IS the best left arm spinner in the world, but there has been some miscommunication in the sub-editing process, probably due to the way that sentence was structured. It has been changed to reflect its original meaning.

  • Dru on July 25, 2013, 8:33 GMT

    I think SA's issue is adapting to the conditions more than anything else an they are not along. Over the years numerous touring teams have struggled to come to grips with the SL conditions particularly when the rains are around. The wickets tend to seam and spin at the same time and swing comes and goes at different times of the day. If you haven't played in those conditions it can become awfully difficult. It's not like in India where it just spins. Only two on this team have played before in SL and honestly it's no different to when SL tour SA where they struggle with the conditions. I must say 11 matches in a row is a worrying statistics but Kandy should be more to SA's liking and expect them to come back strongly.

  • Logan on July 25, 2013, 7:43 GMT

    If you cannot do both the basics right you are not going to be consistent & 90% of the times you will loose games.I am talking about SA's bowling & batting.In their 1st game they bowled,batted & fielded hoplessely.In the second game they bowled & fielded well but batted hoplessly.They are not consistent in these basics and therefore will be considered like any other minoaw team,although they have some real superstar players.AB will sink SA's ranking further and eventually he will be sacked.SA are only good in their backyard .I strongly believe that their domestic team have showcased some excellent players, like Cody Chetty, Subyoyen ,Maharaj ,Vandayar etc, but these guys are never given international exposure.SA is paying quite heavily for this.David Miller is not consistent and yet he has been given opportunities .He is quite a handful on dead pitches but if the pitch is tricky,he is also tricked.

  • David on July 25, 2013, 4:31 GMT

    @ Patdabac, who wrote "To add to that, their (SA's) batsmen are also weak against spin."

    On SA's last 2 test tour of India, Hashim Amla averaged 490. I'll repeat that so you are sure it is not a typing error - his average was 490. (Kallis only averaged a measly 67.66). Dismissed only once in 3 innings, he scored 2 centuries plus a double century. He was facing Mishra, & Harbhajan in his prime.

    Kallis' average in the UAE, against Ajmal & friends, is 107.66. In India it is 58.46. There is 1 run difference between his dismissed average against pace & spin. AB and Alviro also have a 1 run difference between spin & pace. Smith's dismissed average against spin is 25 runs BETTER than against pace!! Duminy's ave against spin is 14 runs better.

    Strange thing: Amla is the player weaker against spin - his ave against spin is 9 runs lower!!! Still, in India he averages 102.87!!!

    @ Patabac: you obviously did not check stats before claiming SA are weak against spin. Stats say you have no idea!

  • David on July 25, 2013, 3:49 GMT

    @ Zubair Maverick Haffajee. Botha WAS supposed to be captain. That was the plan all along. Then came Kirsten, and I think his idea was to turn AB into MSD. Yeah right. Like that is going to happen. I rate Dhoni's ODI captaincy skills as the best ever. AB just does not have MSD's brain power. If Botha had been given the job he had worked for, and deserved, and had been promised, SA's ODI team would not be a train wreck.

    100% agree with you about Tahir, but I guess he is now seen as a "settler!" Phangiso meets criteria that have nothing to do with bowling! Basically the ODI team was used to meet "transition goals" in order to protect the test team.

  • David on July 25, 2013, 3:36 GMT

    @ SamWintson92 F Sam: your point c) "... Johan Botha. Well, I rate his captaincy skills. I'm kinda blank about his reasons for quitting SOU," answers your point d) "I wonder captaincy & keeping is taking a toll on the performance of De Villiers."

    Botha was a successful ODI skipper, & was going to take over when Smith resigned. That was theplan when Micky Arthur was coach, but Micky was dumped just before WC '11. Then, Botha was ignored by Kirsten, & AB was given the job. Botha took the South Australia job because he wanted a career instead of being shafted by S. Africa. Kirsten destroyed the ODI team, & AB is a disaster as a captain. A great batsman/keeper, but clueless as a skipper. As long as AB is in charge, SA's ODI team will be a train wreck Any guesses why Kallis is fed up with playing ODIs? He is no dummy. Why bother to play when the skipper is going to sink the ship, every time? I barely follow our ODI team - it has become a joke.

  • Dummy4 on July 24, 2013, 13:33 GMT

    What do you mean "Rangana Herath may not be the finest proponent of the left-arm slow bowlers' craft in the world"?? He definitely is.

  • Syed on July 24, 2013, 11:19 GMT

    Fernando I disagree , Herath is quality, he can turn it (of course), and is world-class. Maybe he is not as good as an Odi bowler compared to his test-bowling.

  • Nival on July 24, 2013, 11:07 GMT

    well said andrew! SA were repeatedly named one of the best test sides ever after they beat England..but before labeling greatness, they have to prove that they can conquer the Asian conditions. They haven't played a test in Asian conditions since their ascend. it's so unfortunate they can't play tests in SL. but their real test will be when they go to IND, if they beat IND on their home soil (which ENG did), then they are without doubt an all time great team, so it's not that wise to jump into conclusions before that.