South Africa let the opposition tailenders score too many runs, their own batsmen were too defensive against spin in the first innings and too aggressive in the second, and reverse swing did not play as big a role in the Test as they had expected. These were the gleanings of captain Faf du Plessis, after South Africa crashed to a 278-run loss in Galle inside three days.
As if the margin of victory was not bad enough, South Africa's totals were their two lowest in Sri Lanka. What's more, their 73 all out in the second innings was their worst since readmission. Several batsmen were out playing aggressively, which du Plessis put down to a muddled approach; having been spun out playing defensively in the first innings, South Africa wanted to get on top of the spinners early in the second, but got even worse results with that approach.
"It's just a case of our batters somehow trying to put pressure back on the quality of spin bowling that Sri Lanka have," du Plessis said. "There's two ways of looking at it. You could sit it out and try and bat for as long as possible, but you also need to put pressure on the opposition. There were one or two more expansive shots than we would normally play, but the thinking behind the batting was to try and put some pressure back on the bowling, because they don't give you anything. That's the quality the spinners have over here. If you sit there the whole day you're also not going to score runs. There's an element of what is a medium risk, compared to a high-risk shot, especially on the wickets that we're playing on, with the ball stopping a little bit more than we're used to. It is lessons that we can learn. But we weren't good enough in this game, and Sri Lanka showed us why they were better."
Sri Lanka had got their wickets in clumps right through this Test, with South Africa losing their first five wickets for 48 in the first innings, and 32 in the second. Du Plessis wished his batsmen had emulated Dimuth Karunaratne, who had been solid at one end, even while wickets were falling at the other, as he scored 158 not out and 60 - the only batsman to make a half-century in the Test.
"If you keep losing wickets, it is tough coming in - I think that's the biggest difference when you play in the subcontinent," he said. "When you do lose a wicket, that next five overs become tricky - you need to make sure you get through that. Karunaratne was there the whole time for them in the first innings. He scored more than half the runs of their total. So he was fantastic this game. As bad as we were in our batting, he was very, very good."
That South Africa have lost as badly as this is all the more incredible for their having more-or-less controlled the game for much of day one. South Africa had reduced Sri Lanka to 176 for 8 just after tea on Thursday, with Kagiso Rabada in particular proving effective with the short ball. But then Karunaratne struck up productive partnerships with the Nos. 10 and 11 batsmen, and Sri Lanka's total grew by a further 111, completely changing the outlook of the game.
"We had them 170 for 7, so there you should get the tail out quickly," du Plessis said. "If we had got them out for 200 to 220, the whole structure of the game would have changed. But we were very soft in that period. We let the tailenders pretty much boss the show."
One reason why South Africa failed to dislodge those batsmen may have been down to conditions. There had been a brief torrential downpour just prior to those partnerships and residual moisture from the outfield dampened the ball and hampered his bowlers, du Plessis said.
"Our fast bowling wasn't as effective because the ball wasn't reversing," du Plessis said. "Our deadly instinct when they had the tail in there wasn't there, and those extra 100-run partnerships towards the end happened. When it's spinning in conditions like these, we rely on reverse swing to be just as effective a weapon, because we have the pace. But because of the wet outfield reverse swing wasn't a factor, and therefore it eliminated the threat we didn't have in our pace. That was something we didn't plan for."
Having failed to make a match aggregate of 200, South Africa must also now consider beefing up their batting order for the second Test, at the SSC. They had fielded five specialist bowlers in this match, with Vernon Philander coming in at No. 7.
"If you play six batters on pitches that are not flat - whether it be green or spinning - it puts a lot of pressure on your top six to score the runs," du Plessis said. "Especially after a game now where we haven't scored the runs, that is something that us as a brains trust need to think about - what's the best way we can counter their strengths? We'll have those conversations."