ESPNCricinfo: At first glance, perhaps this is not the most enticing of match-ups. At first glance at recent history, it definitely isn’t.
The last time South Africa played Sri Lanka - in the summer of 2016-17 in South Africa - they beat the visitors 3-0 on pitches that seamed and spat and rendered Sri Lanka’s batsmen no more than mannequins. But the last time South Africa played in Sri Lanka, two enthralling Tests saw them win a series on the island for only the second time, and the first time in 21 years. In Galle, South Africa used reverse-swing to beat Sri Lanka at their own fortress and in Colombo batted out a draw, to begin with success a short Hashim Amla stint as captain.
Much has changed for South Africa since then, not least that the captaincy moved from Amla to the now-retired AB de Villiers to Faf du Plessis. Sri Lanka’s leadership has also changed - from Angelo Matthews to Dinesh Chandimal - and may be forced to change again, depending on the outcome of Chandimal’s code-of-conduct hearing.
Chandimal could miss the entire series if the sanction for conduct contrary to the spirit of the game - which he has already pleaded guilty to - is enforced. More’s the pity if he misses out, not only because Sri Lanka will need him against a strong South African attack, but also because both he and du Plessis have ball-tampering history. The big question then would be: would either captain dare touch the ball after putting something in his mouth?
Instead, the focus will be on much less murky matters and the actual cricket should take centre stage. South Africa’s batsmen will be scrutinised against spin, especially after their 2015 tour to India and more especially since de Villiers’ retirement; Sri Lanka’s will be watched against pace, even though there is not expected to be much of it in these conditions. At first glance, it’s not a contest for the ages but look a little deeper, and it might be.
With 27 Tests and three daddy-hundreds (176 against Australia, 194 and 196 against Bangladesh) to his name, Kusal Mendis has emerged as one of Sri Lanka’s most accomplished young batsmen, and will want to stand up to a much-vaunted South African attack. Kusal was Sri Lanka’s top-scorer on their tour of the West Indies, three runs behind the overall leader Shane Dowrich, and his 285 runs included a century and a half-century. He will hope to carry that form into the South Africa series.
All eyes will be on Dale Steyn, who is expected to make his return after more than seven months on the sidelines with a heel injury. Steyn made a successful return to fitness for Hampshire, and though he was “rusty” on return to the national camp, Ottis Gibson is clearly excited to have him as part of the artillery. As long as Steyn can stay on the park, he is all but guaranteed a place in the starting XI, which means he could finally complete his long quest to break the South African wicket-takers’ record. But, of course, that’s not all he is after. Steyn would like to play at least another full season and will want to show he still has plenty to offer.
South Africa are likely to go for a seven-batsmen, three-seamer and one spinner combination which will see Temba Bavuma slot in at No.4, replacing de Villiers, and Theunis de Bruyn at No.6. Lungi Ngidi will miss out for now.
South Africa: 1 Dean Elgar, 2 Aiden Markram, 3 Hashim Amla, 4 Temba Bavuma, 5 Faf du Plessis (capt), 6 Theunis de Bruyn, 7 Quinton de Kock (wk), 8 Vernon Philander, 9 Keshav Maharaj, 10 Kagiso Rabada, 11 Dale Steyn
Rangana Herath has recovered from a split webbing in his hand and should take his place in the XI, and Sri Lanka will need to decide which of Dilruwan Perera, Akila Dananjaya or Lakshan Sandakan will partner him. The rest of Sri Lanka’s plans will depend heavily on Chandimal’s availability, with Suranga Lakmal likely to captain if Chandimal is absent.
Sri Lanka: 1 Dimuth Karunaratne, 2 Danushka Gunathilaka, 3 Dhananjaya de Silva, 4 Kusal Mendis, 5 Angelo Mathews, 6 Roshen Silva, 7 Niroshan Dickwella (wk), 8 Rangana Herath, 9 Suranga Lakmal (capt), 10 Akila Dananjaya, 11 Lahiru Kumara