It has to be the biggest shock result in Test cricket’s 141-year-old history. Sri Lanka came to South Africa having been beaten in all three Tests at home by England. They were then roundly thrashed in Australia and New Zealand. There were a side in disarray, having just lost their designated captain Dinesh Chandimal who was left out to regain form around the domestic circuit, two injured frontline fast bowlers and arguably their best Test batsman in Angelo Mathews. The team personnel constitutes players who were hardly known around the cricketing world. And they were up against a South African side brimming with confidence after defeating India and Pakistan. In home conditions South Africa were clearly unbeatable playing on wickets tailor made for their fearsome pace quartet of Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander and Duanne Olivier. Such was the strength that Lungi Ngidi could not even get a look in.
Surely they would brush aside the fragile challenge from Sri Lanka was the pre-series prediction and there was hardly anyone who doubted this. And yes, history too was against the visitors for no Asian team had won a Test series in South Africa and indeed the only teams to have done so were England and Australia.
And yet after the two-Test series, the result astonishingly read: Sri Lanka 2, South Africa 0. The first was won by one wicket in four days thanks to Kusal Perera playing one of the greatest knocks of all time, the second was over in seven sessions with eight wickets to spare. The South Africans did not know what hit them and little wonder that skipper Faf du Plessis described the defeat as “a massive dent to our confidence.’’
Hitherto it was reckoned that Australia’s thrashing of the all-conquering England side in 1958-59 was right up there as the biggest upset in Test history. But however unexpected that 4-0 result was it was achieved Down Under and Australia were not exactly no-hopers having a couple of world class players and others who were well known around the cricketing world. So it would appear that from any angle the recent result would supersede the result of 60 years ago as the biggest shock in Test cricket history.
But even as one marvels at the Sri Lankan performance the events during the series again underlined how matters of strategy could backfire. South Africa prepared surfaces to suit their main strength – the high quality pace attack – only to be hung by their own petard with their batsmen failing on these surfaces. That the totals they registered were 235, 259, 222 and 128 underscores this. Symbolizing the failure was Hashim Amla who had scores of 3, 16, 0 and 32 in the two Tests.
But enough of South Africa’s miserable showing with the bat. It is Sri Lanka’s moment to rejoice as they savour arguably their finest achievement in Test cricket.