South Africa’s Test side started the year in a bad space, with murmurs of an unhappy dressing room and possible exits doing the rounds with Cricket South Africa’s transformation drive causing more friction. As the year comes to a close, they have managed to turn both form and fortune around with recent series wins against New Zealand at home and Australia away.
On Monday (December 26), they will have a chance to build on their recent gains as they take on Sri Lanka in the first of three Tests in the Boxing Day contest in Port Elizabeth.
It will be Faf du Plessis’s first game as regular Test captain after AB de Villiers, who is still recovering from an elbow injury, decided earlier this month that it would be in the greater interests of the team if he stepped down. Du Plessis will be the side’s third captain in the space of one year after Hashim Amla resigned in January, but he has managed to galvanise the side and looks a more confident batsman, buoyed rather than burdened by the responsibility.
Du Plessis has been hounded by Lollygate for the past few weeks but with the judicial commissioner rejecting his appeal against the charge of ball tampering and CSA accepting the decision, his focus will be solely on the Sri Lanka challenge.
In addition to de Villiers’s continued absence, the side will be without Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel, both pacemen nursing injuries. That didn’t hamper the side in Australia, with Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Kyle Abbott all stepping up, and it’s unlikely that it will make much of a difference at home against Sri Lanka either.
The bigger concern will be Amla’s form. The senior statesman had a miserable outing in Australia, not managing a single half-century in six innings. He hit 53 and 58 at home against New Zealand, but mere fifties don’t befit a batsman of his stature. However, Neil McKenzie, South Africa’s batting coach, feels big runs are around the corner for Amla and hinted that Sri Lanka ought to be worried.
Angelo Mathews’s men, though, have other more pressing issues to address. As strong a force they are at home, they have inspired little confidence on away tours, having comprehensively lost six of their last seven Tests. There have been swift collapses – 91 all out in 36.4 overs at Headingley was the nadir – and dropped catches galore.
The good news is that their most experienced campaigners in the top half of the order, Mathews and Dinesh Chandimal, are back after recovering from leg and hand injuries respectively. It’s been four months since they both played Tests, but Chandimal was one of seven Sri Lanka batsmen to notch up a half-century in their only tour game in Potchefstroom a few days ago.
Bowling-wise, Sri Lanka may be able to hold their own. Mathews insisted he is looking forward to bowling as many overs as he can. Nuwan Pradeep and Dushmantha Chameera, provided they hold up after returning from injuries, can provide good zip. Vikum Sanjaya, the uncapped paceman, could also be given a look in. Sanjaya, 24, bowls at speeds of around 135 kph and has been on the selectors’ radar for a while. And at the other end of the age spectrum is the indefatigable Rangana Herath, who will be key in plugging up one end and may still have a surprise or three up his sleeve.
As far as welcomes go, Sri Lanka couldn’t have asked for a better Christmas gift than the Port Elizabeth pitch, known to be the slowest in South Africa. It’s not escaped the notice of Russell Domingo, South Africa’s coach, either, who says how it eventually plays will largely depend on the heat and the wind on the day. Whether the elements work against them or not is anyone’s guess, but du Plessis and Co are a tighter unit now than a year ago and it will take more than wind to knock them down.
South Africa: Faf du Plessis (capt), Kyle Abbott, Hashim Amla, Temba Bavuma, Stephen Cook, Theunis de Bruyn, Quinton de Kock (wk), JP Duminy, Dean Elgar, Kevash Maharaj, Wayne Parnell, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada.
Sri Lanka: Angelo Mathews (capt), Dinesh Chandimal, Kusal Mendis, Kusal Perera (wk), Dimuth Karunaratne, Kaushal Silva, Dhananjaya de Silva, Upul Tharanga, Lahiru Kumara, Vikum Sanjaya, Nuwan Pradeep, Dushmantha Chameera, Suranga Lakmal, Dilruwan Perera, Rangana Herath.