South Africa batting coach Dale Benkenstein put his team's struggles against spin down to their mental make-up after their twin collapses in the first Test in Galle. South Africa were routed 126 and 73 - their two lowest totals in Sri Lanka, and lowest since readmission - and Benkenstein said the poor performance arose from a lack of match practice and, chiefly, an absence of mental toughness on their first tour since early April.
"It's not the standard we want. Technically, you have to face the spinning ball and there's a few things that you have to adjust to. But 90% of it is being tough mentally, being used to the ball missing the bat or spinning past the bat," Benkenstein said. "When you've had a lot of Test cricket, you are toughened for Test pressures, and I think the guys were low on that as well."
South Africa came into the Test off a three-month off-season, and though some of their players were involved in the IPL during that period, and a few others in the county circuit, the rustiness from a lack of Test cricket showed. Benkenstein admitted that not even intense training at the High Performance Centre in Pretoria helped in shaking off the cobwebs. "We did some pretty good preparation before [the series], but in our conditions. We were trying to simulate the conditions here. We hit quite a lot of balls, but we haven't had a lot of competition," Benkenstein said.
That competition arrived in Galle, and it turned out to be one in which South Africa lost heavily. But on the upside, it has given them two extra days in preparation for the next Test, and Benkenstein wasn't necessarily looking at utilizing that time in the nets. "I don't believe practises are going to make a huge amount of difference. Mentally, we've got to remind ourselves we are back in Test cricket again. It's tough."
Tougher because South Africa's best player of spin, Hashim Amla, is enduring a lean passage - he averages 25.87 from eight Tests this year, and the only player as adept as him, AB de Villiers, has retired. While de Villiers has been away from the South African Test squad before, when he was on sabbatical, he is now permanently out of the picture, and Benkenstein urged the squad to move on. "You don't replace AB or Jacques Kallis - they are once in a decade, once in the lifetime [players]," Benkenstein said. "We can't look backwards. A lot of the guys have played with AB and seen how he has gone about his business. We've got a task ahead of us now. The guys that are in the room are going to have to pull together."
Interestingly, Benkenstein made no mention of conditions or of what he wanted the batsmen to do to wrap their heads around the spinner-friendly tracks. All he said was that South Africa are close to getting things right, despite what the scorecard might say. "I don't think we are far off. It's actually not such a big gap. It seems like a big gap in the end, but it's not such a big gap."