The Sri Lanka and South Africa cricket teams are set for an intriguing contest. The first of their two-test series began on Thursday in Galle.
Both teams have had successful outings in their last test series with South Africa overcoming a subdued Australia 3-1 at home and the Sri Lankans holding West Indies to 1-1 in a three-test series in the Caribbean where they became the only Asian team to beat West Indies in their citadel – Barbados.
There is a bit more than the usual hype for the opening test, for all the wrong reasons. The venue Galle was recently the subject of intense scrutiny following the Al Jazeera sting operation which claimed they had evidence that the Galle pitch had been fixed to suit the whims of a gambling syndicate.
The hosts are without their skipper Dinesh Chandimal who, together with Coach Chandika Hathurusinghe and Team Manager Asanka Gurusinha await sentencing after pleading guilty to a charge of breaching the spirit of cricket in the second test against West Indies.
The minimum punishment for a Level three offence is a ban of two tests and it is likely that the trio will not be able to feature in the series at all. Chandimal is permitted to remain in the dressing room but the Coach and Manager will have to watch the game from the stands.
In that particular game the Sri Lankans refused to take the field for over two hours after match officials had changed the ball, penalised the team five runs and charged Chandimal with ball tampering.
Chandimal then became the first player to be suspended for a test over ball tampering and missed the third and final test against West Indies which the Lankans won after a plucky display.
It is ironical that the South Africans are captained by Faf du Plessis – another player who has twice been reprimanded for the same offence as Chandimal – using sweetened saliva to polish the ball and change its condition.
When the two sides last met the Sri Lankans were trounced 3-0 in the three-test series in South Africa but the Lankans are always more difficult to beat at home. However, the hosts should bear in mind that their opponents beat them when the two sides last played at Galle with the Proteas going on to claim the two-test series 1-0 with an exciting drawn game in 2014.
The mantra for any Galle test is for the side winning the toss to bat first but to be very watchful in the first two hours of play and keep their wickets intact. Thereafter, batting becomes easier and a total of 350 plus is usually enough to push for a win once the wicket starts to spin.
In another intriguing twist both sides might be tempted to include three fast bowlers each on the wicket which is expected to favour spin. South Africa’s coach Ottis Gibson has already confirmed that Kagiso Rabada and either Vernon Philander or Lungi Ngidi will join leading fast bowler Dale Steyn who marks a return to tests after a long break due to injury. Steyn is just three wickets short of overhauling Shaun Pollock’s record tally of 421 test wickets and establish himself as South Africa’s leading wicket taker.
Left arm spinner Keshav Maharaj who has taken 74 test wickets on mostly seam-friendly tracks will get his first chance to play on a spin friendly surface, and if he hits the right groove he could be a key player for the tourists.
The visitors may be tempted to play a second spinner and leg spinner Tabraiz Shamsi who took five wickets in the warm up game. He could find himself in the playing eleven although the Proteas would then be a batsman short – not the ideal strategy for a Galle test.
Despite the absence of recently retired AB de Villiers, the South Africans have a strong batting line up. Openers Dean Elgar and Aiden Markram will be followed by Hashim Amla at his usual number three slot. Amla is 18 runs away from the milestone of 9000 runs in tests.
Temba Bavuma replaces de Villiers at four and is followed by skipper du Plessis, Theunis de Bruyn and wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock. The four specialist bowlers Philander, Maharaj, Rabada and Steyn complete the line-up.
Two experienced Sri Lankan players who missed the Caribbean series – opener Dimuth Karunaratne and former skipper Angelo Mathews – return to the side and will no doubt boost the host’s confidence. Mathews needs another 44 runs to reach 5000 runs in tests and if he gets the milestone he will be the ninth Sri Lankan to do so.
Young Kusal Mendis hit a rich vein of form against the West Indies to emerge as his side’s highest scorer in the series and together with Dhananjaya de Silva, Roshen Silva and wicketkeeper Niroshan Dickwella should be able to make up for Chandimal’s absence.
The Sri Lankan selectors will have to choose either Kusal Perera or Dhanuskha Gunatilleka to open the innings with Karunaratne, and the former may get the nod. Mendis at number three followed by Mathews, Roshen Silva, Dhananjaya de Silva and Dickwella make for a formidable middle order.
All-rounder Dilruwan Perera has excelled in Galle with both bat and ball and he will provide spin support to veteran left arm spin wizard Ranga Herath who too revels on the Galle track.
The pace trio of Lahiru Kumara, Suranga Lakmal and Kasun Rajitha did extremely well in the Caribbean but it is likely that only two will play with Rajitha the one to miss out.
Whatever the outcome in the series, cricket fans are in for an enthralling battle for supremacy between the two sides.