Armed with a stronger seam attack, Sri Lanka look to beat the odds again

Sri Lanka

Big picture

At face value, do Sri Lanka really have a chance? Let’s look at the facts against them:

  • They’ve not played international cricket since March.
  • Most squad members have spent three weeks playing T20 cricket, and are now expected to make the substantial switch into Test mode.
  • They’ve had no warm-up match due to Covid-19 complications.
  • They are missing Angelo Mathews – the most experienced member of their batting order.
  • Sri Lanka batsmen have always struggled at Centurion.

And yet, when they won 2-0 in South Africa last year, Sri Lanka had faced even steeper odds, their fast bowling stocks having been decimated by injury, while a captain had just been sacked, and a coach was fearing for his job (which he would lose, several months later). This time, not only do they feel they have a stronger seam attack, but also have a batting group with more experience, and a coach who knows South African conditions intimately, in Mickey Arthur.

South Africa, however, are much more fearsome in the Highveld – where both Tests will be played – than they are on the coasts, particularly against South Asian opponents. They also have players in form. Anrich Nortje was rapid in the T20s against England, as well as in the IPL. This was in T20s, but the man is clearly in good rhythm, and the prospects of him hitting high speeds at Centurion will worry some Sri Lanka batsmen. The likes of Aiden Markram, Rassie van der Dussen and Keshav Maharaj are coming off excellent performances in the four-day competition (Markram has 75, 113, 149, 121 in his four most-recent innings), which is leads to another point – they have been playing long-form cricket, where Sri Lanka have not had competitive multi-day matches to play for at least five months.

South Africa clearly start as favourites, but as Sri Lanka’s captain Dimuth Karunaratne has asserted, a lot depends on how well each team bats after their long Test hiatus. There have been some seriously low team totals in each of the last four matches between these teams. If that is the case again, Sri Lanka will feel they have a chance.

Venue record

These teams have played four times at Centurion, and South Africa have won each of those matches, two of them by an innings. The closest Sri Lanka have ever come, was when they lost by just three wickets, way back in 2002. The most-recent Centurion match between these teams was in 2011 – Sri Lanka losing by an innings and 81.

Players to watch

Quinton de Kock will captain South Africa in a Test for the first time, but already, he has said he sees himself only as a caretaker leader. He leads the team in all three formats now, and also keeps wickets in all three. The usual question here: how will captaining over five days impact his batting and his keeping? (His batting has been good of late – his average up at 45.9 since the start of 2019.) And will he lead well? De Kock is generally a cricketer of few words, but this new job may need him to find his voice.

Kusal Perera played one of the all-time great innings to wrench victory from defeat last year in Durban, but aside from this one blinding knock, there hasn’t been a lot to his Test career. Eighteen Tests in, he has an average of 31.13, which is passable only for an allrounder. And he has batted everywhere from No. 1 to No. 8, without appearing in more than eight innings in any one position. Despite his having produced Sri Lanka’s greatest-ever innings from No. 5 on the last tour here, his team now looks set to ask him to open the innings, to cover for the injured Oshada Fernando. If he is to find a more stable place in the XI, Perera desperately needs to settle into a more consistent phase in his career.

Pitch and conditions

South Africa need to balance creating conditions that will suit their seamers, and making sure it’s not impossible for their batsmen to find form. So it will be green, but not too green, and we can expect pace, bounce and swing but not the kind that saw Sri Lanka crushed at the Wanderers in 2017. SuperSport Park is usually a bat- first pitch; if you can get through the first hour or so, it very good for batting on the most of the first three days. De Kock said he expects it to take some turn later on.

It’s been raining a fair bit on the Highveld in the build-up and afternoon thunderstorms are forecast from Sunday. Otherwise, it will be warm with temperatures touching 30.

Team news

It’s Oshada’s hamstring injury that will keep him out of the first Test, and him being unavailable means there may be a spot in the batting order for Dasun Shanaka, who not only brings dynamism to the lower middle order, but also can send down a few overs of serviceable seam bowling.

Sri Lanka are wondering whether to go in with an out-and-out spinner in Lasith Embuldeniya, or to hedge their bets and go with Wanindu Hasaranga, who adds value with his batting. There is one other serious injury worry too. Suranga Lakmal picked up a hamstring niggle in the approach to the match, and may need to be replaced, perhaps with Kasun Rajitha.

Sri Lanka (probable): 1 Dimuth Karunaratne (capt.), 2 Kusal Perera, 3 Kusal Mendis, 4 Dinesh Chandimal, 5 Dhananjaya de Silva, 6 Dasun Shanaka, 7 Niroshan Dickwella (wk), 8 Suranga Lakmal/Kasun Rajitha, 9 Lasith Embuldeniya, 10 Vishwa Fernando, 11 Lahiru Kumara

With Kagiso Rabada out through a groin injury, right-arm seam bowler Glenton Stuurman may get a debut. But that’s only if he gets over a niggle. An injury doubt also hangs over Lungi Ngidi. Lutho Sipamla and Migael Pretorius would seem to be the next in line to play, if Ngidi or Stuurman (or both) aren’t fit in time.

South Africa (probable): 1 Aiden Markram, 2 Dean Elgar, 3 Rassie van der Dussen, 4 Faf du Plessis, 5 Temba Bavuma, 6 Quinton de Kock (capt. & wk), 7 Dwaine Pretorius, 8 Anrich Nortje, 9 Keshav Maharaj, 10 Glenton Stuurman, 11 Lungi Ngidi

Stats and trivia

  • In the two Tests Perera has played since the last South Africa series – of which he was Player of the Series – he has averaged six and has a top score of 23. Perera, however, has been unavailable for several Sri Lanka Tests through injury.
  • On Sri Lanka’s last tour here, de Kock was South Africa’s best batsman, hitting 80, 55, 86 and 1 in his four innings.
  • South Africa have only ever lost two of the 25 Tests they’ve played at Centurion – against England in 2000, and Australia in 2014.
  • Even overall (counting Tests in Sri Lanka as well), Sri Lanka have a poor win-loss record against South Africa, having won only nine and lost 14 of their 29 Tests.

Quotes

“There is a lot of grass on the surface at the moment, and I think the more there is, the easier it will be for us. When you have less of an up-and-down type pitch, you just have to survive that first couple of hours, and you give yourself a chance to put a decent score – something like 300 – on the board.”

Sri Lanka captain Dimuth Karunaratne

“I don’t want to think ahead too much. I’m trying to keep it as basic as possible and as simple as possible. It is something we are aware of, the last time they were here, they did beat us, so its definitely something we want to rectify. Hopefully we can do it by being as simple as possible.”

South Africa fast bowler Anrich Nortje

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo’s Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf

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