Mahela Jayawardene Column: On Proteas’ plight

A very important factor when playing spin is the need for a confident defence. Your defensive technique is critical with so many fielders hovering around the bat. If you are not confident, or a little uncertain, you run a greater risk of offering bat-pad catches off tentative prods or being forced to play high-risk scoring shots to deliveries that you should really be defending.

Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja... a formidable spin combination.   -  PTI

Winning overseas is the toughest challenge in Test cricket and very few teams are able to adapt easily to different conditions. Indeed, as I write, South Africa, arguably the best travelling team of the past decade, have been spun to their first overseas defeat in nine years, losing the third Test against India in Nagpur. The Freedom Series was lost with India leading 2-0 with just the fourth and final Test to be played in Delhi.

It’s been a wretched tour for the Proteas. Their batsmen have struggled in all the Test matches against the spinners, especially Ravi Ashwin, who has thus far taken an incredible 24 wickets at 10.75. But he’s not been the only one causing trouble: Ravindra Jadeja has also been prolific with 16 wickets at 12.06 and in total 47 out of the 49 South African wickets to fall have been taken by spin. Their highest total has been just 214. The pitches have been baked dry and have turned extravagantly from day one.

Having toured India on many occasions, I understand only too well how difficult it is to play Test cricket there and can really empathise with their plight. Although we are used to playing in Asian conditions, we always struggled to adapt. The first issue is the SG ball which, unlike the Kookaburra ball, is hard with a pronounced seam, rather like the Duke ball used in England. The SG ball grips the pitch and spins quickly as a result, providing a very different challenge to playing spin in Sri Lanka.

It’s not just your batsmen that have to adapt, it can be a struggle for the bowlers too, to get used to the SG ball. They must also adapt quickly because India’s batsmen thrive at home and their great fluency means they can quickly take the upper hand. There were several times over the years when we were overpowered by their strong top order and ultimately left in a hopeless situation as a batting unit.

So how do you prepare for tours to India — or indeed any tours to countries with unfamiliar conditions? The first and most important key is getting your preparation right. Most international players have strong techniques and you can’t be making wholesale technical adjustments to your game. You have to instead devise your own personal game-plan and ensure you have complete mental clarity on exactly how you are going to combat the expected challenges.

In the modern day getting sufficient time to do this preparation is actually a very serious practical problem. We tend to finish one tour and immediately hit the road again leaving you with days rather than weeks to make the necessary adjustments. That makes it an even tougher challenge.

But whatever time you have, you first need to know what to expect. In South Africa’s case, they would have known the ball was going to turn sharply and they would have also known that Ashwin, an exceptionally talented spinner, would have been the major threat. The experienced batsmen would then spend some time working out how best to counter those threats.

A very important factor when playing spin is the need for a confident defence. Your defensive technique is critical with so many fielders hovering around the bat. If you are not confident, or a little uncertain, you run a greater risk of offering bat-pad catches off tentative prods or being forced to play high-risk scoring shots to deliveries that you should really be defending.

A strong defensive game is therefore the pre-requisite for success against spin in India, but you also have to work out how you are going to score runs. You will never be successful if focused only on survival; you need to identify the best options for you personally to rotate the strike and score runs.

There is no secret single solution that will help you master spin, you need to assess your strengths and identify the strokes and scoring areas that best suit your game. Some players will be comfortable using their feet, others might want to play from the crease, while others will look to use the sweep to rotate the strike.

Once you have worked out your strategy, you need to practise hard in conditions that are as similar as possible. If touring India, for example, there is no point facing spinners with a Kookaburra ball on good hard pitches. You want to be facing the SG ball on dry, cracked, roughed-up surfaces that rip square. You can then fine-tune your batting to the point where you are really confident about the execution of your game-plan.

Ultimately you are preparing mentally for the challenge. You are getting your mind-set right so that the correct shots will come naturally. When you bat you need clarity, you can’t be in two minds or over-thinking as you await the delivery. You need to have prepared to the point where you know exactly how you are going to score and have complete faith in your ability to react naturally to each delivery. Once this state of mind is achieved you have given yourself the best possible chance of success — now you just need a little bit of luck!