In some ways South Africa and Sri Lanka cricket teams are similar. At the start of the decade, they were threatening for global supremacy with many superstars in their side. By the end of it, ruined by an authoritarian and corrupt administration, they are a shadow of the team from their heydays.
This also makes the two sides equally unpredictable and thus the contest between them is tough to call. This unpredictability was on display when Sri Lanka toured to South Africa in 2019. Being behind after first innings on both occasions, Sri Lanka overcame the odds and emerged victorious in both Tests. Helped by the heroics of Kusal Perera in the first Test and the bowlers in the second, Sri Lanka achieved what no Asian side had done before: win a Test series in South Africa.
A barrage of injuries
Sri Lanka started where they left off on the first day of the Test series this year. In the first innings, they ended up with a decent 396, their highest-ever Test score on the South African soil. What aided their cause was an inexperienced pace attack with Lutho Sipamla on debut and Wiaan Mulder with one Test to his name way back against the same side in 2019.
But then, the tide turned against them due to a reason that can simultaneously fall under the tag of misfortune, lack of cricket and general fitness standard in the side. Batting beautifully and with authoritative fluency, Dhananjaya de Silva was on 78* when he set off for a run. Before reaching the other end, he strained a tendon in his left thigh that required a stretcher to take him back to the dressing room. He was out of the Test and ultimately ruled out of the series.
With de Silva’s injury, Sri Lanka not only lost a batsman but also a bowler, an off-spinner at that who might have been useful against Dean Elgar and co. Aggravating their worry, Kasun Rajitha – the second-highest wicket-taker during their tour in 2019 – limped off with a groin injury after just one ball into his third over. He did not return to bowl. If that was not enough, Lahiru Kumara, having toiled for 21 overs with limited success, walked off holding his groin after one ball into his next spell.
As things stand, Rajitha and Kumara are unlikely to be fit for the second Test. The injured list also includes Sri Lanka’s top-scorer in the first innings – Dinesh Chandimal – who too injured his groin. All this when Sri Lanka’s most experienced pacer, Suranga Lakmal, missed the first Test due to a hamstring injury and continues to be in doubt for the second.
Before the first Test, Sri Lanka last played an international game in January 2020. There was a time on the second day when they had the hosts 4/200 with the fire of the previous tour still intact. It fizzled very quickly after that.
Hosts get the Rabada boost
A right adductor muscle strain kept Kagiso Rabada out of the first Test. South Africa missed him sorely on the first morning. While the Proteas had Lungi Ngidi and Anrich Nortje to support the rookies, their pace quartet had just 12 Tests between them.
Abled by the inexperience in South Africa’s pace attack and injuries in Sri Lanka’s, the first Test had nearly double the scoring rate than the two other Boxing Day Tests at far end of the globe. At the end of the first morning, Sri Lanka scored 340/6. Even with South Africa replying well and scoring 600 plus, the match finished well before the end of the fourth day.
Relieved from the captaincy burden, Faf du Plessis made merry against the depleted Sri Lankan attack to register his highest Test score. Like most things with South Africa cricket, it ended in despair after he failed to clear mid-on while batting on 199.
Elgar and Temba Bavuma chipped it with meaningful contributions, but both will rue missing out on a definite ton. Elgar due to a superb reflex catch by Dasun Shanaka and Bavuma by embarrassing himself after choosing to walk even after daylight between his bat and the ball.
Damaging Sri Lanka’s prospects further was a career-best 73 by Keshav Maharaj. Batting at number eight, he hit back to back half-centuries in Tests. A 133-run seventh-wicket stand between him and du Plessis ensured that Sri Lanka had no way back in the Test.
However, this might not be enough for him to keep his place in the side. With Rabada back in the side, South Africa will mull going with an all-pace attack at the venue that has been most conducive for swing and seam in the past few years.
Being wicket-less in the last Test will also go against Maharaj when it comes to the choice of bowlers for the Johannesburg Test. His only hope then is if the management decides to rest Rabada and not risk him when the opposition is down and out.
The trajectories of the two sides were similar in the last decade. With a full-strength South Africa against an injury-hit Sri Lanka, only one side holds the aces at the start of the new decade.
South Africa: Quinton de Kock (capt, wkt), Dean Elgar, Aiden Markram, Rassie van der Dussen, Faf du Plessis, Temba Bavuma, Wiaan Mulder, Keshav Maharaj/ Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje, Lungi Ngidi, Lutho Sipamla
Sri Lanka: Dimuth Karunaratne (capt), Lahiru Thirimanne, Kusal Mendis, Minod Bhanuka/ Oshada Fernando, Kusal Perera, Niroshan Dickwella (wkt), Dasun Shanaka, Wanindu Hasaranga, Suranga Lakmal/Asitha Fernando, Vishwa Fernando, Dushmantha Chameera