The Proteas need 20 wickets in at least one of the next two Tests to secure a historic series victory in Sri Lanka.
In limited overs cricket, winning the toss usually goes a long way towards winning the match. Hashim Amla admitted as much in the wake of the Proteas’ series-clinching victory in Hambantota.
The opening batsman was self-effacing despite his gargantuan contribution of 258 runs, but then that was to be expected. What did come as a surprise was a statement of what is universally known, but not often expressed by the players themselves. South Africa won the toss in two of the recent ODIs, and went on to bat the Sri Lankans out of the contest on both occasions.
Test cricket, however, is less dependent on the toss and often witnesses a fairer contest between bat and ball. Indeed, if we are to take South Africa’s poor record in Sri Lanka as an example, it hasn’t mattered whether the Proteas have won the toss or not. In fact, on the three occasions where the Proteas captain has called correctly, and has opted to bat first, South Africa has gone on to claim one draw and two losses.
The Proteas will go into this Test series with momentum, and with several batsmen in sublime touch. Nevertheless, a more convincing all-round performance will be required if they’re to secure another history-making victory.
In general, this Proteas side will feel confident about their ability to handle the Sri Lankan slow bowlers. Muttiah Muralitharan is no longer in the picture, and few batsmen bar Jacques Kallis seemed genuinely troubled by the hosts’ spinners in the recent ODI series.
That said, a great batting display won’t be enough to clinch a first series win in Sri Lanka. The bowling attack will need to fire as it has never fired before.
On the first tour to Sri Lanka in 1993, South Africa took 44 out of a possible 60 wickets in the three-match series. They suffered the same return in 2000 (44), and while the two Tests in 2004 witnessed a more potent showing (33 out of a possible 40), it wasn’t enough to win the series.
The most recent tour in 2006 was the worst from a bowling point of view, as the Proteas managed a mere 24 out of a possible 40. Overall, the Proteas have played 10 Tests in Sri Lanka, and have dismissed the hosts (taken 20 wickets in a game) on just two occasions.
The survivors of the 2006 tour will want to forget about THAT first Test in Colombo. They will be wary of the fact that Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene are still around today (they scored 287 and 374 respectively on that occasion). They have no doubt grown tired of everybody reminding them that Sri Lanka smashed South Africa to all parts of the ground before finally declaring at 756-5.
Of course, the attack that features in Galle this week will be much stronger than that of 2006. Dale Steyn is twice the bowler he was back then, while Morné Morkel and Vernon Philander have proved to be strike bowlers in their own right This wasn’t the case eight years ago when Steyn and an ageing Makhaya Ntini were supported by the hard-working but substandard duo of Andre Nel and Andrew Hall.
South Africa’s spinners will also need to contribute with a more penetrative showing this time round. Imran Tahir was tidy rather than intimidating in the recent ODI series. He needs to start living up to his role as a strike bowler, especially in subcontinent conditions. If not here, then where? This is the time for Tahir to shine.
Dane Piedt may be considered for the coming matches, but perhaps it is worth encouraging JP Duminy to play more than a holding role. The ball that clattered into Lahiru Thirimanne’s stumps in the third ODI was perfectly flighted and directed, and turned significantly away from the left hander. With Sri Lanka set to include several southpaws in the Test series, Amla may look to Duminy to inflict further damage.
The new Test skipper is another important part of the equation. There’s been plenty of speculation regarding Amla’s captaincy style, and how his cool temperament and keen sense of responsibility with regards to the batting will aid the Proteas’ cause. But when the Proteas take the field in Galle this week, Amla will face a different sort of challenge. How will he respond if the likes of Sangakkara and Jayawardene get on top? Who will produce the special performance that inspires the attack to claim 20 Sri Lankan scalps?
The next two games will provide the answers. The who remains a mystery, but the what is set in stone. South Africa’s task is clear: they need to bowl Sri Lanka out in order to win this series.