It needs a mastermind to win in South Africa-by Rex Clementine

It needs a mastermind to win in South Africa-by Rex Clementine



Indian cricket had reached new heights last year winning in Australia, sealing the series of all places at the Gabba, where the Aussies had been unbeaten for three decades. Given such an epic performance, you thought this Indian team will complete a series win in South Africa as well. But the Indians were cut to size as the Proteas chased down a tricky target showing guts in plenty with their skipper Dean Elgar putting up a super show at the Wanderers this week.

The series is leveled 1-1 and India could still go onto win it by emerging victorious in the final Test in Cape Town next week. The point is that you thought the series for this Indian side is a walk in the park given the parity between the two sides. If India do not win in Cape Town, Sri Lanka will be the only Asian nation to have won a Test series in South Africa. If you don’t get the impact of it, let us put it in simpler terms; only Sri Lanka, Australia and England have won Test series in South Africa where Test cricket has been played since 1889.

India’s got a formidable Test side that played in the finals of the World Test Championship. Sri Lanka’s is a weak unit where their best player is always injured. They have just got one bowler with 100 plus Test wickets and their batting is as brittle as a Chinese smart phone. So how did they win a series of all places in South Africa? Francois du Plessis and Dale Steyn were still part of the South African side when Sri Lanka won in Durban and Port Elizabeth in 2019. This should be a good case study for any student of the game.

This is where the brilliance of Chandika Hathurusinghe comes into the equation. There aren’t many smarter brains in cricket than his. Through meticulous planning he achieved the impossible. That leaked dressing room video moments after winning the series where players adore their coach just gives you a glimpse on the wonders that Hathurusingha could do and how much players respected him.

To start with there was some crazy scheduling. Sri Lanka toured New Zealand in December from where they went to Australia for a two Test series in February and then flew straight to Johannesburg from Canberra to play two more Tests in March. The players and coaching staff had not come home for four months and had been on the move constantly shifting from one hotel to the other and flying from one city to another. Usually when the scheduling is that hectic, the last leg turns out to be a nightmare and players are impatient to return home. Hathurusinghe found a way to keep them fresh and pull off the greatest heist in the annals of Sri Lankan Test cricket history.

It’s a bad idea to head into a Test series in South Africa without a warm-up game. That’s exactly what Sri Lanka had to do as the scheduling was so tight. Hathurusinghe had just five days to get the team ready. The biggest challenge that he faced was that a week before that the Aussie quicks had sent Kusal Perera and Dimuth Karunaratne crashing down with vicious bouncers. Both spent a night in the hospital. Hathurusinghe knew that with Steyn, Rabada and Olivier the short ball will be used to good effect. One of the things that he constantly worked on was the hand speed. Be prepared for the short ball and play positive cricket looking for methods to score. That worked. As we have seen time and again, when put under pressure, South Africa give in.

In Durban, KJP played a blinder with the last wicket stand with Vishwa Fernando taking the team over the line. In the second Test, Sri Lanka’s limited bowling resources did wonders. The seamers hardly had any threatening pace but Hathurusinghe’s method of staying discipline, sticking to good lengths did the trick. He proved yet again even though your attack did not possess anyone who bowled at 140kmph, there were means to take 20 wickets to win a Test match.

That series win was Hathurusinghe’s finest hour in his coaching career. Sadly, a few months later it was all over. It’s hard to find a better brain in cricket than that of Hathurusinghe. He could have, however, done far better things had he not compromised on his principles.

When Hathurusinghe came on board everyone told us that he will not tolerate indiscipline. That was a lie. He had favourites and tolerated them even when they had brought the game into disrepute.

Some of the resources he employed was just a waste of money. He roped in a psychologist from Brisbane who had a proven track record. But the point is, barring one or two players not many understood what the psychologist was trying to convey due to language barriers.

You also tend to get the feeling that Hathurusinghe only wanted to have in the coaching staff those whom he trusted. That was unprofessional. He did not place proper emphasis on fielding and as a result Sri Lanka’s fielding standards dropped so alarmingly that they were the worst fielding unit in the world. Again the issue could have been addressed with a professional fielding coach, but Hathurusinghe was against it and was happy to get the job done using amateurs. Steve Rixon was Fielding Coach when Sri Lanka won in South Africa and that recruitment was forced on the Head Coach.

When things were going off the track, Hathurusinghe was looking for scapegoats. His public condemnation of Angelo Mathews was in poor taste. Lasith Malinga was past his prime when Hathurusinghe decided to recall him. Those who were close to him literally were pleading not to do so as it may harm the team’s culture and unsettle a settled unit. He dismissed those suggestions saying that he could handle Lasith. That turned out to be wishful thinking.

Despite many flaws, Hathurusinghe is a super coach. He is meticulous with planning, unconventional, unafraid and understands the game and his players so well. Although he may not be back in the Sri Lankan fold again, here is a man who has got much to offer. Winning a series in South Africa was just unimaginable. India have just proven how tough it is to win a series in South Africa.

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