By Kanishkaa Balachandran
Colombo, December 26 (NIA): Sri Lanka are unbeaten in their last five Test matches. Two of those victories came against Zimbabwe. Nothing remarkable there, but it’s the other three that stand out. They came against Australia, at the time the No.1 Test team. Yes, Sri Lanka were playing them at home, but few would have expected them to take the series in the manner in which they did, winning all three Tests.
They were a train wreck in England earlier in the year and Australia, who have bossed several series in Sri Lanka in the past, were expected to repeat that against a young Sri Lankan side struggling with confidence. But it’s this tendency to surprise that’s worth looking forward to when they take on South Africa in the first of three Test matches, at Port Elizabeth starting on Boxing Day.
South Africa at home is a tough prospect for any touring Asian side. A grassy pitch with a little moisture and three fit fast bowlers can roll over the best batting sides from Asia.But Sri Lanka have the right to feel slightly bullish of putting up a fight if they get to bat when the conditions are most challenging.
This confidence stems from the performances of two young batsmen from the Australia series, Kusal Mendis and Dhananjaya de Silva. Mendis, a former Under-19 captain, played the innings that defined the Australia series – 176 in Kandy – and gave his team the belief that they could beat the best. Dhananjaya, who also bowls off spin, was the highest scorer in that series, with scores of 127 and 65 not out in the third Test.
Batting between Mendis and Dhananjaya are the two senior players, captain Angelo Mathews and Dinesh Chandimal. Mathews spoke about this new confidence in the batting line-up a day before the Port Elizabeth Test.
“When Sanga, Mahela and Dilshan retired it created a vacuum in the team, but the youngsters have taken it up well,” Mathews said.
“We saw in the Australia series that the youngsters like Kusal Mendis and Dhananjaya de Silva were standing up. It’s great to see them coming through.”
In the only tour game, Sri Lanka’s batsmen got a good workout, with seven out of eight specialist batsmen scoring fifties. A second practice game would have been ideal, but such is the scheduling crunch these days that touring teams can’t expect more than one game ahead of a Test series.
The bowlers had one innings against the South African invitational side. Rangana Herath didn’t pick any wickets in the ten overs he bowled but it didn’t matter as fast bowlers Nuwan Pradeep and Lahiru Kumara picked up three wickets each. Mathews and Dushmantha Chameera, both returning from injury, had mixed results with the former picking two wickets and Chameera none. Chameera is the fastest bowler in the team and is expected to make the XI.
The pitch at Port Elizabeth had a lot of grass cover on the eve of the game. None of the Sri Lankan players have played a Test here before. This is one of the slower pitches in the country and could be the one Herath and offspinner Dilruwan Perera would love to bowl on on the fourth and fifth days. For that Sri Lanka would have to bat well enough to stretch the game there.
Much will depend on Herath, one of the world’s best spinners, to lead the way. He did so in the only time Sri Lanka won a Test match in South Africa, in their previous tour exactly five years ago. His five wickets in the second innings gave Sri Lanka one of their best wins away from home.
Yet, Sri Lanka’s overseas record of late against top teams has been poor.
Had they toured South Africa last year, they may have fancied their chances even more because the South Africans then were jolted. They were thrashed in India and they failed to beat England playing at home. But the South Africans have regrouped and how! They just thwarted Australia in Australia, winning the Test series 2-1. Under a new captain Faf du Plessis, they look far stronger and confident now compared to a year ago. This, even without AB de Villiers, now injured.
South Africa look primed to take this series but Sri Lanka are capable of stretching them. And it may not necessarily be one of the senior players leading the way. That’s where the surprise element comes in.
(Kanishkaa Balachandran is a freelance writer on cricket, music, films and travel)