Did overthinking Sri Lanka's spin tricks hurt South Africa?

Faf du Plessis was caught at slip Associated Press

"You almost think it's worse than what it is."

With that one sentence, South African captain Faf du Plessis summed up the main reason his team lost the opening Test on their Sri Lanka tour.

While the scorecard reveals South Africa were outspun - losing 17 of their 20 wickets to Sri Lanka's tweakers - it does not say how or why the wickets fell. The highlights reel will show a selection of poor shots, of edges being beaten and found, and of batsmen in two minds, maybe more. And that's where South Africa really undid themselves.

They didn't just tell themselves it was going to be tough to play Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka, which is a reasonable expectation, but they seem to have talked themselves into thinking it would be impossible. They were expecting a pitch with more craters than the moon and deliveries that would curl around hairpin bends. When they got a much milder version of that, they did not know what to do.

The Galle pitch, though spinner-friendly, was not outlandish and the bowlers relied more on accuracy than mystery. In the end, du Plessis could admit as much. "I didn't think the wicket was that bad. I thought it was actually a decent Test wicket. It's obviously a lot more challenging to face spin. But there wasn't any demons in the wicket at any stage while we were playing," he said. "The biggest weapon that they had was their consistency. Consistency in spinners is what makes it hard. You just have to get the ball to spin a little bit and it's enough, because they don't bowl any bad balls. I think often it was the ball that didn't spin as much as we thought that got us out."

Exactly. Overthinking has hurt South Africa and not for the first time.

On the 2015 tour of India, before South Africa had even seen the pitch they played the first Test on in Mohali, du Plessis (who was not the captain then) said: "We are expecting the worst. We are expecting big spin on day one." South Africa lost that match in three days on a surface which was drier than this one, but also not impossible to play on.

"The worst" came two games later, in Nagpur, where South Africa also lost in three days to cede the series and their No.1 ranking. The ICC rated that pitch poor but that could not undo the damage done to South Africa's confidence.

They went on to lose against England at home and in the 2016 off season held an all-in bosberaad (an Afrikaans word, which loosely translates to "intensive strategy meeting") to plot a new path for an outfit seemed to have lost its way.

Since then, South Africa have mostly played good Test cricket, both at home and away. Though they lost a series in England in mid-2017, they won in Australia in late 2016 and they have enjoyed two successful home summers, beating Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, India and Australia.

Fundamentally this is still a strong South African side, but the blockage it has when it comes to playing spin in the subcontinent needs to be sorted out quickly. It does not help that the team's best player of spin, Hashim Amla, is on the wane, and the only person who can match him, AB de Villiers, has retired. Du Plessis does not think the solution lies in more warm-up games or longer preparation periods, and he is probably right.

Host nations don't always provide their most sporting tracks for these fixtures. "We played a warm-up game which was a flat wicket - it didn't spin," du Plessis said. And, typically, South African coaches cannot replicate subcontinental spinners in practice sessions. "When we face offspin in the nets, it's a coach trying to bowl offspin at you. It's not even the same quality as a [Dilruwan] Perera. The shape that he has is a lot different than the pace you can practice against. You can practice 10,000 balls, but he bowls a different shape. You can only work on a plan if you face someone, and a lot of our guys haven't faced him."

The only answer then is to play more high-pressure matches in the subcontinent, something the new FTP does not make a lot of provision for. South Africa do not play Tests in Sri Lanka or Bangladesh at all between 2019 and 2023, but will tour India in October next year for three Tests and need to be better equipped for the challenge.

A possible plan of action would be to look at the resources that already exist and there is one in particular that could offer the answer. Once a year, Cricket South Africa send several players to Mumbai on a spin camp. The group consists of bowlers looking to hone their skills and batsmen, usually on the fringes of or new to the national team. Aiden Markram and Theunis de Bruyn were part of 2017 group, Temba Bavuma was named in the 2018 squad but eventually did not travel.

Perhaps the next time such an excursion is made, all the Test batsmen should travel and all of them should play some competitive cricket, though that would mean CSA have to find an opposition and organise the trip when it does not clash with IPL (or any other league some of their top players may be otherwise occupied with). That way South Africa's best batsmen will be able to see for themselves that conditions are not as bad as they might think. They will be able to have more first-hand knowledge of subcontinental surfaces and more experience of playing on them.

The other side of the coin, of course, is for South Africa not to become obsessed with making their own conditions as challenging as possible for subcontinental sides. When Sri Lanka toured in 2016-2017, both Centurion and the Wanderers were prepared to be as seamer-friendly as possible. When India toured last summer, the same thing happened, at du Plessis' insistence. The Wanderers offered so much lateral movement and inconsistent bounce that it was rated poor.

Revenge pitches are part of the game but the team that asks for them knows it will only get a more vengeful surface on its next trip, and that's what South Africa were expecting. Having been as inhospitable to Sri Lanka as they could 18 months ago, they thought Suranga Lakmal and co would return the favour, but they didn't have to. All Sri Lanka had to do was know South Africa were expecting the worst, and their worst would follow.