IN FOCUS – South Africa in Sri Lanka Test series 2014 : Preview

  This two-Test series was originally scheduled to be held last year, but was postponed to accommodate more ODIs and irrelevant domestic T20 games. This is South Africa’s first Test series in Sri Lanka since 2006 and hence a much awaited one. A third Test would have been ideal, but yet again three ODIs were chosen instead of an extra Test.

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The Matches and the Grounds

  The first Test will be played at the Galle International Stadium from July 16-20 while the second and final Test will be played at the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) in Colombo from July 24-28. In their last five Tests at Galle, Sri Lanka have won three and lost one, with the latest game being a high-scoring draw against Bangladesh in 2012-13. In their last five Tests at the SSC, which is known for its batsman-friendly pitch, Sri Lanka have won once and drawn four times. The hosts have not lost a game at the SSC since 2003-04 when they lost to Australia. South Africa have played twice at Galle, with one loss and one draw, and four times at the SSC, with one win, a draw and two heavy defeats on each of their last two tours (2004 and 2006) to the island nation.

The Teams and the Captains

  Sri Lanka – Angelo Mathews (captain), Lahiru Thirimanne (vice-capt), Upul Tharanga, Kaushal Silva, Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Dinesh Chandimal (wk), Kithuruwan Vithanage, Rangana Herath, Dilruwan Perera, Ajantha Mendis, Suranga Lakmal, Shaminda Eranga, Dhammika Prasad, Chanaka Welagedara.

  Sri Lanka are on a high after achieving a historic series win in England just three weeks ago. There are four changes from the squad that beat England – fast bowlers Nuwan Pradeep and Nuwan Kulasekara, specialist wicketkeeper Prasanna Jayawardene and opener Dimuth Karunaratne make way for opener Upul Tharanga, middle-order batsman Kithuruwan Vithanage, spinner Ajantha Mendis and fast bowler Suranga Lakmal.

  Tharanga returns to the Test squad riding on his impressive first-class form; he last played in whites back in 2007-08. Mendis will join his fellow spinners Rangana Herath and Dilruwan Perera to form a three-pronged attack, though only two might play. The focus will be on Mahela Jayawardene, who will play the first two of his last four Tests for his country. Dinesh Chandimal will be the likely new wicketkeeper. The impressive pace duo of Shaminda Eranga and Dhammika Prasad will look to continue from where they left in England.

  Angelo Mathews showed the world his captaincy and batting skills on the tour of England. He has been in red-hot form since becoming captain, and his century at Headingley last month was one of the best match-winning knocks in recent times. He even contributed substantially with the ball. Under his leadership, Sri Lanka have the ability to become one of the top Test nations in the near future. As a geunine all-rounder, he adds a lot of depth to his team and so far has fulfilled his role of captain with aplomb. He will be looking to hand South Africa their third successive series defeat on Sri Lankan soil.

  South Africa – Hashim Amla (captain), Alviro Petersen, Dean Elgar, Faf du Plessis, AB de Villiers (wk), JP Duminy, Stiaan van Zyl, Wayne Parnell, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel, Dale Steyn, Imran Tahir, Kyle Abbott, Quinton de Kock, Dane Piedt.

zhashim   The highly dependable number three Hashim Amla will start off his tenure as South African captain with a challenging series in Sri Lanka (source – skysports.com)

  South Africa begin an interesting era with a new captain at the helm. Two cricketing giants of South Africa’s post-Apartheid era – Jacques Kallis and Greame Smith – both retired in the last home season, thus leaving a huge void in the team. South Africa lost a series for the first time in five years when they went down to Australia at home four months ago.

  New captain Hashim Amla, ‘Faf’ du Plessis and the outstanding A.B de Villiers are now the three lynchpins of the batting line-up. Dean Elgar and J.P Duminy will also be expected to contribute consistently to the team. There are two potential debutants in batsman Stiaan van Zyl and off-spinner Dane Piedt. The main spin option is leg-spinner Imran Tahir. Dale Steyn will always remain a threat, irrespective of the conditions on offer. Young Quinton de Kock will don the gloves as de Villiers has a hamstring problem.

  Hashim Amla’s appointment as captain is historically significant, as he will become the first permanent non-white player to lead the Proteas in a Test match. One of the most trusted performers of the Smith era, Amla is a highly likeable man who has earned the respect of the cricketing world through his pleasing performances with the bat on the field and his humility and grace off it. The responsibility of captaining South Africa means that one will get to see a hitherto-unknown facet of Amla’s disposition, that of leadership. His batting ability is unquestionable, and judging by his calmness and work ethic, I expect him to become a potent captain.

Head to Head and Recent Record

  Contests between Sri Lanka and South Africa have been infrequent ever since the two sides first met in a Test in 1993. Only 20 Tests have been played in more than two decades, with South Africa winning ten of them and five each resulting in Sri Lankan wins and draws. In Sri Lanka, ten matches have been played with the hosts winning four to South Africa’s two. The most recent series between the two teams was played in South Africa in 2011-12, when the Proteas won a three-Test series 2-1.

  The last time they faced off in Sri Lanka was in a two-Test series in 2006, which was won 2-0 by Sri Lanka. Incredibly, this was the last overseas series defeat for South Africa – they have not been beaten in an away series for nearly eight years. The last time South Africa won an overseas series was in Australia in 2012-13. The last – and only – time South Africa won a series in Sri Lanka was in 1993, when they clinched a three-Test series 1-0.

Form Book and Ranking

  Sri Lanka – currently ranked 6th, just four points behind England – enjoyed one of their greatest moments ever when they completed a thrilling 1-0 series win in England in their most recent Test series. Prior to that,over the last year and a half, the Lions had played little Test cricket and that too only in the sub-continent, recording home and away wins against Bangladesh with a 1-1 draw against Pakistan in the UAE in between. Their last series defeat was to Australia away in 2012-13, while their last home series defeat was in 2011, also against Australia.

  South Africa’s last home season was a mixed bag – a 1-0 win against India offset by a 2-1 defeat to Australia, which ensured that they surrendered their long-held number one ranking to the Aussies. Their last overseas series was against Pakistan in the UAE last October, which was drawn 1-1. Though South Africa are ranked second, they have the same points (123) as Australia, and a win against Sri Lanka will deservedly put them back on top.

Players To Watch Out For

Sri Lanka's Jayawardene celebrates after scoring a century in Colombo    Mahela Jayawardene has only four Tests left in his illustrious career, and he will be batting at his favourite venues in the first two of them against South Africa (source – rediff.com)

  Mahela Jayawardene, one of the classiest modern-day batsmen, recently announced that Sri Lanka’s next four Tests (all at home, two each against South Africa and Pakistan) would be his last. The 37 year-old will be playing at his two favourite grounds against South Africa – he has scored 2698 runs at 77.08 at the SSC and 2284 runs at 76.13 in Galle, and thus holds the top two positions in the list of most Test runs by a player on a single ground.

  Amla, de Villiers and Steyn – the three who were also part of the 2006 tour – must have painful memories of Jayawardene’s 374 and his epic world record partnership of 624 with his best mate Kumar Sangakkara at the SSC back then. He has been in good touch since the beginning of 2014, having averaged 143 in Bangladesh and 43.5 in England. Though Sangakkara – who is in the form of his life – will be the prized wicket, Jayawardene will surely look to make the most of the final stage of his stellar seventeen-year career.

  South Africa’s new skipper Hashim Amla averaged only 17.25 on his only tour of Sri Lanka in 2006, but since then he has grown into one of the world’s best batsmen. With the retirements of Smith and Kallis, his role as a top-order batsman becomes extremely crucial. He likes playing in the sub-continent, and if his form in the just-concluded ODI series (258 runs in three innings with two hundreds) is anything to go by, the Sri Lankan bowlers will have to toil hard to scalp his wicket. Given his appetite for scoring big, one can expect Amla to begin his tenure as captain with a typically solid display with the bat.

Prediction

  A really tough one to predict. There is also the possibility of rain during the series which may result in at least one draw, most likely at the SSC. South Africa have had an incomparable overseas record in the past eight years and will look to maintain that, but Sri Lanka are the more settled side. So, Sri Lanka to edge out South Africa by a margin of 1-0.

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