Tom Sizeland identifies five points of discussion ahead of the first Test at St George’s Park.
There are only two Proteas remaining who know how to beat the Sri Lankans at home, and six will remain from the side that beat them in Sri Lanka two years ago. Hashim Amla and Vernon Philander were part of the setup when they beat the islanders 2-1 back in 2011-12, whereas only three have survived from the Sri Lankan unit. They’ve never faced off in Port Elizabeth and the likes of Kagiso Rabada and Kyle Abbott have never played a Test here before, but history suggests the pacemen have had more success here, which might favour the South Africans more given that spinner Rangana Herath is Sri Lanka’s best bowler by miles. None of this will play on their minds though, for both sides carry winning momentum through to this series. Sri Lanka have won five Tests on the trot, while four of South Africa’s last six Tests have ended in victory, with the respective runs of form including series victories against Australia.
Durban has been ditched, and rightfully so. Sparce crowds, poor weather and light, underprepared pitches … Kingsmead is unlikely to be a household Test venue for the foreseeable future. There’s reason for St George’s to be avoided too, however, for South Africa’s record there is very delicate. The Proteas are unbeaten in the last three matches here, but have still lost more than they’ve won in the friendly city. They’ve won 10, drawn five and lost 11. Compare that to a place like Centurion (17 wins in 22 matches) and it proves shocking reading. The brass band will be blaring louder than ever though, as they look to make this venue the Boxing Day mainstay and back that up with a victory.
BEYOND THE NEW ERA
Both sides are in a so-called ‘period of change’, but they must get on with it now. Kumar Sangakkara hasn’t played for over a year, make that two years for Mahela Jayawardene, and for Tillakaratne Dilshan it’s been three. They want to start winning matches on their own now, and the same can be said for the Proteas. The South Africans have proven that they can do it without AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, and they’ll want to keep that going. They haven’t retired but they’re still injured and retirements loom large. This is another opportunity, for both sides, to prove that they’ve got the resources to perform without their celebrated trios.
The three remaining from that series five years ago are Angelo Mathews, Dinesh Chandimal and Rangana Herath. One is now the captain, one is the vice-captain and the other is the third-best bowler in the world. They are Sri Lanka’s best players and are pivotal to getting anything out of this series. They have a lot of promising young players around them, but when the trio plays well, their side plays well. Mathews and Chandimal were injury concerns going into this, and for the sake of the contest, let’s hope they’re fighting fit. Chandimal became the first Sri Lankan in history to score fifties in each innings on his debut, which came in their only victory to date against the South Africans in Durban. Herath has taken an impressive 25 wickets from six Tests against the Saffas, while Mathews averages a decent 47.75 against them.
FIGHTING FOR FORM
For all of South Africa’s recent success in the Test arena, there are still a number of players who will feel they have a point to prove. Hashim Amla’s recent form has been underwhelming. He was the only player in the top eight not to get a fifty Down Under, averaging 19.60. It continued a disappointing trend for him away from home, averaging 25.29 from his last four series. His average against Sri Lanka is also a stat he’d like to avenge, averaging 36.81 in seven Tests. Stephen Cook’s century in the day-night match in Adelaide arguably kept his place in the side, while his opening partner, Dean Elgar, and JP Duminy, South Africa’s No 4 in the absence of De Villiers, desperately need to find some consistency to show that they belong at the highest level.
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