We preview the first Test of new Proteas skipper Hashim Amla’s reign, which starts in Galle on Wednesday morning.
Galle is a beautiful Test ground, resting in the shadow of the famous fort, and its iconic clock tower. But it won’t be the view that the Proteas focus on when they start the first Test of their brief two-match engagement against Sri Lanka there on Wednesday.
Rather, they will be concentrating on getting the best possible start under new captain Hashim Amla, with a new opening partnership, and the possibility of one or two new caps in the side.
As first assignments go, playing Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka after a long lay-off from Tests, with no warm-ups besides the ODI series, is about as challenging as it gets. The Proteas have a woeful record in the country, with their most recent Test series there, in 2006, providing painful memories for the team members who remain from that tour. But none of that will faze Amla. He will approach this series with characteristic calm.
Key for the Proteas will be to get off to a good start. If they bat first, the new opening partnership, expected to consist of incumbent Alviro Petersen with Dean Elgar promoted up the order to vacate the spot left by Smith, will need to gel quickly.
Similarly, the bowling unit will want to make early inroads if they are first up. The seam trio of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel will toil in the Sri Lankan conditions, so expect the spinners Imran Tahir and JP Duminy to take centre stage, and bowl a good chunk of the overs once the ball has softened. The uncapped Dane Piedt is not expected to be given a run in the first Test, but if he does the 24-year-old off-spinner will need to call on his full arsenal to bamboozle the wily Sri Lankans.
Due to AB de Villiers’ hamstring injury he won’t be able to keep wicket, which means Quinton de Kock will slot into the lower middle order and earn his second Test cap. He will need to improve on his performance in his sole Test so far, where he scored 7 in the first innings, and 34 in the second.
Sri Lanka’s Test side comes into the series on a high after beating England 1-0 in their two-Test rubber last month. But there are lingering questions over their attack, with Rangana Herath the stand-out among a group of hit-and-miss bowlers. Remember, there is no Malinga in this form of the game.
The Sri Lankan batsmen, however, present a formidable challenge. Captain Angelo Mathews in coming into his own, while Lahiru Thirimanne and Upul Tharanga provide solid back-up for the experienced duo of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. Playing at home, against a spin attack that shouldn’t trouble them, they will be difficult to remove once they are in, as they proved back in 2006 when they piled on 624 runs in Colombo.
After batting at Nos 6 and 7 in the final Test of the series against Australia back in March, Faf du Plessis is expected to return to No 4 in this game. He will want to prove that he belongs there, not only after a pair of gritty innings in Cape Town three months ago, but also after being left out of the ODI side for the underperforming Jacques Kallis. But even if he comes in lower down the order (which might happen if Amla drops to No 4), Du Plessis will be keen to score some runs and cement his position in the Test side.
For Sri Lanka, you get the feeling that it’s the old dogs who will do the business, and no one has more at stake than Mahela Jayawardene. With this now confirmed as his second-last Test series following the announcement of his retirement on Monday, Jayawardene will want to go out on a high and score at least one big ton to help his side claim a Test win.
Both teams will struggle to take 20 wickets in these conditions, so we’re going for a draw.
The Test begins on Wednesday 16 July, at 6:30am SA time.
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