(ESPNCricinfo) Successful teams can make themselves dizzy in Sri Lanka, when after one or two losses they try to devise new plans on how to tackle spin. For years struggling visiting captains have put forth varying ideas. “We need to read the spinners better out of the hand,” some have said. “We have a better chance if we play on the back foot,” swore others. Some teams have tried to dominate the spin bowlers early, others have attempted to defend at first and tire them out – only occasionally have any of these plans come off.
Having hurtled to a 278-run victory in Galle, South Africa have come up with their own theories. Soon after the loss, Faf du Plessis spoke about how his team had been too aggressive in the second innings, in which they were all out for 73. Two days later, batting coach Dale Benkenstein said that more practice in between the Tests wasn’t necessarily going to help South Africa, but that a mental shift would most help the batsmen combat spin in Colombo.
Now, on the eve of the second Test, which South Africa must win to draw the series, there is a new batting catchphrase: “trust your defence”. Essentially, the idea will encourage the South Africa batsmen to refrain from attacking too early and await the hittable balls.
“The thing that let us down in the first Test was that we didn’t trust our defence well enough,” captain Faf du Plessis said ahead of the Colombo Test. “The important part of playing spin in Test cricket is trusting your defence. We need to try and put pressure back on the spinners as well, with what you are doing. The guys worked really hard on their game plan and trying to be positive against spin – which is an element of playing spinners well. You have to also trust your defence – so that’s two parts.”
Since the end of the first Test, South Africa have also spoken repeatedly about emulating Dimuth Karunaratne’s gameplan, after Karunaratne outscored their entire team by 19 runs in Galle. But where Karunaratne attributed his own success to being positive and busy against the spinners, South Africa have chosen to focus on his defensive work.
“Trusting their defence was the difference between how Sri Lanka played spin and how we played spin,” du Plessis said. “Especially Dimuth Karunaratne, who didn’t take too many risks. He just played with good defence. As a captain, I wanted him to take risks but he didn’t take risks. He only started hitting the ball on the air when he was something like 80.”
South Africa can perhaps take heart from their most-recent match at the SSC, in which they did very much trust their defence, and made scores of 282 and 159 for 8. On that occasion, though, they were defending a 1-0 lead and were clearly playing for the draw throughout – their run rate at an abysmal 1.87 for the match. This time, a draw will not be enough, and may not even be possible given the drier nature of Sri Lankan pitches over the last two years, but South Africa are still hoping their past successes against spin will light their path to a creditable result in the second Test.
“I don’t think we are a team that plays spin badly,” du Plessis said. “If you back and make references where we have had good series against spinners. Spin is not something that we mentally struggle with. There was a carelessness about our batting in Galle. We just need a change of mindset as to what we need to do score runs in Test cricket. You don’t get to the subcontinent and try and score 100 in 70 balls or so – you score 100 off 180 balls. That is the only difference that we need to make while still being positive and making sure you make the right decision when good balls are bowled.”