Cape Town – Avoid defeat in Galle and strike for victory in Colombo
to pinch the series.
That may sound like an overly defensive mindset ... and it
quite likely also won’t be the formal plea to the troops of either coach
Russell Domingo or new captain Hashim Amla as South Africa prepare to enter the
first of two Tests against Sri Lanka at seaside Galle International Stadium on
Wednesday (06:30 SA time).
But it could lurk somewhere at the back of the visiting
players’ minds all the same, given that the first Test is the likeliest for the
Proteas to have to negotiate a genuine “trial by spin” and that their shock
bowlers should feel a tad more frisky when hostilities move to Colombo’s
Sinhalese Sports Club Ground.
It was hardly
surprising that at a media briefing this week, seamer Vernon Philander reminded
of the importance of striking with a still-newish ball in the first encounter:
failing that, history at the venue suggests that the faster men may be in for hellish,
graveyard shifts unless reverse swing enters the equation the more the surface
Galle is undoubtedly where the Sri Lankans will wish their
left-arm spinning trump-card, veteran Rangana Herath, to come into his own to
potentially devastating effect.
Forget the fact that the Proteas no longer have to deal with
an old scourge, the brilliant Muttiah Muralitharan, still holder of the record
for most Test scalps ever (800).
The 36-year-old Herath, when home conditions are
particularly in his favour – and they ought to at Galle --poses a clear and
present danger all of his own.
His record at the ground tells you everything in that
regard: 48 wickets in nine Tests at an average of 23.
He made his debut there all of 15 years ago against the
mighty Australians of the Steve Waugh leadership era, and quickly announced
himself with figures of four for 97 in the visitors’ first innings of a
And he has only got more formidable subsequently at Galle, where
the 2012 calendar year was probably his proverbial cherry on top: first he
broke English hearts with respective hauls of six for 74 and six for 97 in
March, and later in the same year hungrily scooped another 11 in the match
against a bamboozled Black Caps of New Zealand.
However it is assembled, the entire South African side -- interestingly
rebuilding and restructuring since the retirements of such names as Smith,
Kallis and Boucher -- will be making their maiden Test appearances at Galle, so
it is not as though any of their ranks can pass on useful five-day reconnaissance
about the ground’s potential pitfalls.
Some comfort can nevertheless be taken from the fact that in
the Proteas’ last of only two Tests previously played there, they earned a
comfortable enough stalemate in 2004.
But in 2000 they were trounced by an innings, the inevitable
Murali bagging 13 scalps in a match that also marked the Test debut of a
certain Kumar Sangakkara: the latest clash will now be his 125th in
the format, and the classy left-hander sports a home average of almost 66
against South Africa.
In all, Sri Lanka have won 12 and drawn six of their 22
Tests at Galle, although the Aussies (twice), Pakistan and India have shown
that is not impossible to prevail as the away side there.
Sometimes it presumably also doesn’t exactly turn square at
the ground and fizz too violently out of rough, as evidenced by the Lankans’
last Test at the stadium in March last year, when minnows Bangladesh earned an
outrageously high-scoring draw – even the tourists amassed 638 in their first
innings after Sri Lanka had declared on 570 for four.
But if it does turn fairly appreciably, the one-day
performances of Imran Tahir and JP Duminy in the lead-up do offer the hope that
South Africa may fight fire with some combustible stuff of their own in the
Of course if it appears that the word “raging” merits being
paired with “turner”, the Proteas’ brains trust may consider also accommodating
a further slow-bowling factor in rookie off-spinner Dane Piedt. But that is
perhaps an outside prospect.
Given the worrisome news that ace stroke-player and intended
wicketkeeper AB de Villiers is struggling with a hamstring niggle, 21-year-old
Quinton de Kock’s chances of doubling his tally of caps to two somewhere in the
top seven must have soared, given his back-up (or maybe even starting?)
credentials as a gloveman.
The Proteas XI should not differ much from: Alviro Petersen,
Dean Elgar, Hashim Amla (capt), Faf du Plessis, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy,
Quinton de Kock, Vernon Philander, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Imran Tahir.
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