When Chandika Hathurusingha took over as head coach in December, he set three priorities. In Test cricket, he wanted to be unbeatable at home. He wanted to win matches away from home in different conditions. And he wanted to clinch the 2019 World Cup. While Sri Lanka’s limited over performance is far from desirable in recent months, they have made steady progress in Test cricket.
When Sri Lanka beat Pakistan 2-0, Hathurusingha was not yet Sri Lanka coach. But it was the beginning of a great journey under new skipper, Dinesh Chandimal. Since then, Sri Lanka have lost just two matches—one to India in a three-match series and the other to West Indies in the recent Caribbean series. In between, they drew two matches in India, beat Bangladesh and drew 1-1 against West Indies.
Drawing a series against the world’s No. 9 team–West Indies–doesn’t sound a good enough achievement to challenge a team like South Africa even under favourable home conditions. But the circumstances in which they fought the battle in the Caribbean shows that Sri Lanka has enough muscle to challenge anyone if they play to full potential. Having said that, history has typically favoured the tourists in Sri Lanka.
During their previous visit in 2014, the Hashim Amla-led South Africans humbled Sri Lanka to win the Galle Test by 153 runs despite the star-studded hosts still having Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara in their ranks.
On a traditionally spin-friendly track, South African seamers led by Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel breathed fire sharing 16 wickets of Sri Lanka’s two innings to end the island’s dominance at the venue.
The second Test ended in a draw and South Africa clinched the series 1-0. However, four years later, Sri Lanka will employ the same trick as they look to win a Test against South Africa. Sri Lanka is yet to beat them in a Test since the Proteas’ last visit.
Even though Morkel is no longer in the side, South Africa has Kagiso Rabada—possibly the world’s best seamer at present—and Dale Steyn. Batting coach Tilan Samaraweera admits that the South African seamers, particularly Rabada, will pose the biggest threat to the Lankans.
“Our biggest challenge will be to negotiate the reverse swing during the series,” Samaraweera said. “They have a very strong fast bowling unit and Rabada in my opinion is the world’s most skillful seamer at present. So it all depends on how we would bat in the first 20-30 overs in the match.”
With the ball tending to reverse swing in Sri Lankan conditions, the South Africans have a four-pronged pace attack. In addition to Rabada and Steyn, they also have Vernon Philander and Lungi Ngidi.
“We got pace, obviously, and the ball in these conditions tends to reverse so when you have pace on your side generally the guys can take wickets. We also must understand the pitches. That’s why we have brought three spinners. We want to try and make sure that we have all areas covered,” said Fuf du Plessis, the South African skipper.
Sri Lanka is no short of pace talent. It was the pace trio of Suranga Lakmal, Lahiru Kumara and Kasun Rajitha who stood out during the West Indies series.
Sri Lanka’s strength at home is their spinners and chief selector Graeme Labrooy said they will play to their strength. “It’s not a secret,” he said. “We want the batsmen to put runs on the board for the spinners to come and take those 20 wickets.”
Thus, Sri Lanka will offer a pitch tailor-made to its premier spin bowler Rangana Herath on whose shoulders they will rest their case. More often than not, Herath has been Sri Lanka’s sole match winner at home and, even at 40, Sri Lanka wants Herath to drive the team home in the two-match series starting on Thursday.
But Herath’s participation in the Galle Test is not certain as he is recovering from a split webbing. If he is absent, Malinda Pushpakumara will come into the side.
In order to be the best in the game, Samaraweera believes cricketers need a lot of mental preparation. “If you take all these cricketers in the side, they are all talented and skilled cricketers,” he said. “But what makes you a better cricketer is how you adjust mentally to play under different conditions. So a lot will depend on how they prepare themselves mentally.”
Samaraweera also expects his misfiring batsmen to come good during the home series: ‘I don’t think we should judge a player on his performance in the West Indies. We expected the conditions to be tough but not so much and,with the Duke ball, it was really difficult . But here we are playing in our own conditions and, like I said, if they can keep their heads high, we can challenge them and come on top.”
Except Kusal Mendis and Dinesh Chandimal, the rest of the batting–particularly Roshen Silva, Kusal Perera, Dhananjaya de Silva and Mahela Udawatte–struggled to get runs. While Udawatte got the axed after one miserable maiden tour making way for Dimuth Karunaratne to return to the side, the selectors have retained the other three in the 16-man squad.
Sri Lanka Test squad
Dinesh Chandimal (capt), Angelo Mathews, Dimuth Karunaratne, Kusal Mendis, Kusal Perera (subject to fitness), Danushka Gunathilaka, Dhananjaya de Silva, Roshen Silva, Niroshan Dickwella, Rangana Herath (subject to fitness), Suranga Lakmal (vice capt), Dilruwan Perera, Akila Dananjaya, Lahiru Kumara, Lakshan Sandakan, Kasun Rajitha
South Africa Test Squad
Faf du Plessis(c), Hashim Amla, Temba Bavuma, Quinton de Kock, Theunis de Bruyn, Dean Elgar, Heinrich Klaasen, Keshav Maharaj, Lungi Ngidi, Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada, Tabraiz Shamsi, Shaun von Berg, Aiden Markram