Tour review

South Africa v Sri Lanka, 2016-17

Test matches (3): South Africa 3, Sri Lanka 0
Twenty20 internationals (3): South Africa 1, Sri Lanka 2
One-day internationals (5): South Africa 5, Sri Lanka 0

Paul Harris, these days a pundit as pithy as his slow left-arm bowling was unflashy, nailed it. As South Africa's one-day series triumph beckoned, he said: "It's a bit boring, because these Sri Lankans are rubbish. They just don't cut it in these conditions. Their best player at the moment is rain." Yet not nearly enough of it fell to spare the Sri Lankans what became routine hidings.

In the figurative sense, it poured. In the Tests, Dean Elgar, J-P. Duminy, Quinton de Kock, Hashim Amla and Stephen Cook all scored hundreds; Sri Lanka had only three half-centuries, from Angelo Mathews, Kusal Mendis and Dimuth Karunaratne. The brightening star of Kagiso Rabada rose still further in the Tests, where he claimed 19 wickets at 17. But the most dominant bowler was Vernon Philander, who showed all the mastery that had almost been taken for granted before an ankle injury sidelined him from November 2015 until August 2016.

He took 17 wickets at 14, figures that did not flatter him. For Sri Lanka, Suranga Lakmal - rangy and raw-boned, with a compelling edge to his bowling - made even soaked-in-seam South Africans take notice, and was rewarded with a dozen wickets. But their portly champion, Rangana Herath, was taken out of the equation by South Africa's ploy of leaving more grass than usual on the pitches. The surfaces were not unfair, but they were covered well enough to limit Herath's left-arm spin to six pricy wickets.

That was also the trend in the one-day internationals, although there was a difference of opinion. After the first match, at Port Elizabeth, A. B. de Villiers likened the pitch to Hambantota, where South Africa had clinched their first ODI series win in Sri Lanka, in 2014. But Sanath Jayasuriya, Sri Lanka's chief selector, told Cricbuzz a different story: "In ODIs, you generally get wickets that are good for batting. Port Elizabeth is the slowest wicket in South Africa but this time they left a lot of grass."

Excuses missed the point, and the South Africans recognised in their visitors their own plight from a year before, when there still didn't seem to be life after Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher. Replace those names with Muttiah Muralitharan, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, and the point is made. The hosts had little trouble winning the Test series 3-0, even less the one-dayers 5-0, and in between hardly cared a jot that they lost the Twenty20s 2-1 - but they couldn't quite find the empathy to put an arm around Sri Lanka's shoulder and say: "Don't worry - things will come right."

An important part of the reason they did so well was Faf du Plessis's appointment as captain, in the wake of de Villiers's resignation two weeks before the Test series, which he missed to recover from elbow surgery. As a leader of men, du Plessis invited comparisons with Mike Brearley, but he is a better player, and should have been made captain when Graeme Smith retired in March 2014. But not even du Plessis could stop Kyle Abbott from taking up a Kolpak deal with Hampshire - one he had signed five months earlier. Abbott hid that fact from the dressing-room, and even said after the First Test that South Africa was "where you want to play your cricket". Less than a week later, after his signing had been exposed in the English media, he said: "I need to pay bills, I need to buy groceries." Look out for him at Waitrose.

Match reports for

Tour Match: South African Invitation XI v Sri Lankans at Potchefstroom, Dec 18-20, 2016
Report | Scorecard

1st Test: South Africa v Sri Lanka at Port Elizabeth, Dec 26-30, 2016
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2nd Test: South Africa v Sri Lanka at Cape Town, Jan 2-5, 2017
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3rd Test: South Africa v Sri Lanka at Johannesburg, Jan 12-14, 2017
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1st T20I: South Africa v Sri Lanka at Centurion, Jan 20, 2017
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2nd T20I: South Africa v Sri Lanka at Johannesburg, Jan 22, 2017
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3rd T20I: South Africa v Sri Lanka at Cape Town, Jan 25, 2017
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1st ODI: South Africa v Sri Lanka at Port Elizabeth, Jan 28, 2017
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2nd ODI: South Africa v Sri Lanka at Durban, Feb 1, 2017
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3rd ODI: South Africa v Sri Lanka at Johannesburg, Feb 4, 2017
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4th ODI: South Africa v Sri Lanka at Cape Town, Feb 7, 2017
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5th ODI: South Africa v Sri Lanka at Centurion, Feb 10, 2017
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© John Wisden & Co