South Africa’s captain Faf du Plessis in Colombo ahead of their second Test cricket match against Sri Lanka, July 19 2018. Picture: REUTERS
South Africa’s captain Faf du Plessis in Colombo ahead of their second Test cricket match against Sri Lanka, July 19 2018. Picture: REUTERS

Starting with their visit to Pakistan in October 2007‚ SA have played 18 Test series away or on neutral grounds — and lost only two of them.

In both those series they lost the first match of the rubber‚ as they did against Sri Lanka in Galle last week.

So history says SA’s record could take another dent in Colombo‚ where the second Test starts on Friday.

Both times that SA have lost those rubbers‚ in India in 2015 and in England in 2017‚ conditions have been unusually dominant factors.

In India the Nagpur groundsman cheated SA out of a fair shot at victory — the pitch was rated "poor" by the International Cricket Council — and the other surfaces were not much better.

In England the visitors lost a battle keenly fought by both sets of batsmen struggling on pitches so difficult to come to terms with that only three centuries were scored in four matches.

In Galle last week SA gave the pitch too much respect and in the process crashed to totals of 126 and 73‚ and with that defeat by 278 runs in less than three days.

Trident of spinners

Besides themselves‚ the architects of SA’s defeat were the Lankans’ trident of spinners — left-armer Rangana Herath‚ off-spinner Dilruwan Perera and left-arm wrist spinner Lakshan Sandakan.

"In the first Test we were quite off the boil in a lot of areas‚" Faf du Plessis said on Thursday.

"We have also been a team that starts late unfortunately. Then we start making better decisions. Hopefully we can do that in this Test match, although we know it’s going to be tough. In the subcontinent drawing a series is as good as winning a series. It’s tough and that’s what the best teams do."

SA have been among those teams since making their Asian debut in Sri Lanka in 1993‚ winning seven series there and drawing and losing six each.

In terms of matches on the subcontinent‚ SA have won and lost 15 each and drawn 16.

Friday’s game‚ then‚ is important in several respects. And the key to the way it will pan out is how SA’s batsmen handle the Lankan spinners.

"The thing that let us down in the first Test was that we didn’t trust our defence well enough‚" Du Plessis said.

"The important part of playing spin in Test cricket is trusting your defence. Obviously we need to try and put pressure back on the spinners….

"The guys worked really hard on their game plan and trying to be positive against spin‚ which is an element of playing spinners well. But you have to also trust your defence…. That was the difference between how Sri Lanka played spin and how we played spin — especially Dimuth Karunaratne [who scored 158 not out and 60]‚ who didn’t take too many risks; he just played with good defence.

"If you take him away I think both teams struggled to play spin well."

The Lankan batsmen are, however, not Du Plessis’s problem; it’s the South Africans he should worry about.

"There was a carelessness about our batting‚" he said.

"In Test cricket you have to learn how to put a bowler under pressure," Du Plessis said.

"Once again I take the example of [Karunaratne]. As a captain I wanted him to take risks but he didn’t take risks."

SA had yet to finalise their team‚ but Du Plessis indicated that they would include an extra batsman in the team.

That could mean a quiet few days ahead for Vernon Philander‚ who bowled only 11 overs and took just one wicket in the first Test.

Along with everything else that happened in Galle‚ Dale Steyn equalled Shaun Pollock as the highest Test wicket-taker for SA. What might Steyn’s reward from his captain be the next time he strikes?

"I’ll give him a kiss on the cheek."