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South Africa set out on their tour of Sri Lanka in July 2004 with the motto "Dare to live the dream." The dream was to re-establish the side as the No. 1 Test and one-day line-up in the world but after a month of defeat, disappointment and disenchantment it had dissolved into a horrible nightmare. For the first time in six attempts Sri Lanka beat them in a Test series, drawing in Galle and winning in Colombo.
Less than two years earlier South Africa had briefly assumed the leadership of the ICC Test Championship; now they slipped to sixth. A subsequent 5-0 drubbing in the one-day series took their run of defeats to ten, equalling their record, and saw them drop to sixth in the one-day table. The last time South Africa endured form like that, in 1994, it cost captain Kepler Wessels and coach Mike Procter their jobs, and while there was no serious suggestion that Graeme Smith's captaincy was under threat - he was still only 23 and had assumed the leadership less than 18 months before - the role of coach Eric Simons began to attract increased scrutiny. Normally extremely supportive of his players in public, Simons took the unusual step of criticising their performance after the Test defeat in Colombo and said he would consider his position if results did not improve. The one-day defeats that followed merely added to his discomfort. He resigned six weeks later, after more failure in the Champions Trophy in England.
South Africa's problems were many and some were fundamental. They failed to find a replacement for the recently retired Gary Kirsten, their leading run-scorer in Tests; the seam bowling, apart from Shaun Pollock, lacked control and penetration; and although spinner Nicky Boje was steady, he never looked likely to run through Sri Lanka's batting line-up. The side looked rusty after the long lay-off that followed the end of their tour of New Zealand in March, and even the fielding, so often a cornerstone of South Africa's performances, was below par. There were also suggestions of discord behind the scenes, with whispers about the commitment of senior players, and Smith admitted to a "clear the air" meeting ahead of the final one-day international.
To watch South Africa in action was to wonder whether any plans had been put in place; and, if they had, whether the players were simply not good enough to execute them. All too often the team's appearance on the pitch was followed by a lengthy delay while the field was set, which suggested that little or nothing had been discussed beforehand. In all fairness, not everything that went wrong could have been helped. Opener Herschelle Gibbs damaged his right ankle before the tour even started and missed the First Test, while Andre Nel, who might have provided a much-needed spark to the seam attack, did not bowl a ball in anger on the trip because of a back spasm. While Gibbs regained fitness he never found any semblance of form and was frequently made to look like a novice by Chaminda Vaas's late in-swing. After emerging from the World Cup in 2003 as one of South Africa's few shining lights, Gibbs's form was so bad that Smith admitted during the one-day series that he could be dropped.
Pollock, who reached 300 one-day wickets and scored two one-day fifties, was one of the few players who could look back on the tour with any degree of satisfaction, although others had their moments. Jacques Rudolph scored a disciplined hundred in Galle, and Jacques Kallis also reached three figures in the final one-day international in Colombo. His was the wicket Sri Lanka wanted most, but his bowling and, surprisingly, his catching, were not up to his previous standards.
For Sri Lanka the series was of great significance because it showed outsiders and the players themselves that they could win without the services of Muttiah Muralitharan. The champion spinner played in only the First Test before succumbing to a shoulder injury that required surgery. But his absence was never felt, and Sri Lanka revealed a hitherto unheard-of depth in their fast-bowling resources with Vaas - a worthy man of the series - supported in particular by Lasith Malinga in the Test series, and Nuwan Zoysa in the one-dayers. With the bat, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene were the stars, although Sangakkara ended the tour with his role in the side still the subject of debate. He was spared the wicket-keeping duties in the Test series but resumed the dual role of batsman/keeper in the one-day matches.
Match reports for
Sri Lanka Board President's XI v South Africans at Colombo (CCC), Jul 30-Aug 1, 2004
Sri Lanka Board President's XI v South Africans at Moratuwa, Aug 18, 2004