COLOMBO: Things that have been more lively than the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) Test pitches in recent years: the planet Mars, the SLPL’s twitter account and the third floor of London’s Langham Hotel in the dead of night. The last three Tests there have been draws. But with Sri Lanka requiring a win there to level the series, perhaps the groundstaff have produced a surface more akin to what first-class teams regularly encounter at SSC. There can be a little help for the seamers early on at the venue, but Sri Lanka will hope for plenty of turn as well, which occasionally does occur.
Whatever the surface is like, Sri Lanka know South Africa have already brought them down to earth, after their excellent five months between January and July. The hosts comfortably lost an ODI series they were expected to win. Then when they went to Galle, looking for victory, they came back with a big defeat. That loss has placed a microscope firmly on Sri Lanka’s misfiring middle order, which will see at least one change on Thursday.
South Africa have, in contrast, appeared settled and at ease in Sri Lanka, both on and off the field. The reserves have been for light jogs around Galle. Morne Morkel and AB de Villiers have had their hair clipped at a roadside barber. The views around the Kandy hills even prompted an unusually sensitive appreciation for nature, from Dale Steyn.
Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, none of this has prevented the visitors from being ruthless at the cricket. Steyn and Morkel accounted for 16 wickets in Galle, striking with raw pace and bounce as much as through reverse-swing. South Africa’s batsmen have also resisted spin much better than they did in an ODI series last year – having been particularly effective against Rangana Herath in the first Test. A series victory of any description will see South Africa reclaim their top ranking. Sri Lanka will have to play substantially better than at Galle to prevent that outcome.
In the spotlight: There are murmurings Mahela Jayawardene’s farewell Test against Pakistan in August could be moved to SSC, instead of the P Sara Oval, but barring intervention, this will be Jayawardene’s last match at his home ground. His 2698 runs at the SSC are more than anyone has scored at any single venue, and he averages 77.08 there, after 25 Tests. Jayawardene has not been in excellent touch over the last two months, even if he found ways of making runs in England. But if there was one pitch that should see him return to his best before the swansong, this is it. Last time South Africa bowled to him here, they were chasing leather off his blade for 12-and-a-half hours.
Outdone by Dale Steyn, as almost everybody always is, Morne Morkel nevertheless ran in with intent and prized seven wickets out of a Galle pitch that did not appear to suit his talents. His extra bounce created problems for Kumar Sangakkara in both innings (and he should have had him out twice too, had Quinton de Kock not dropped Sangakkara in the second dig), and the angles he bowled to Sri Lanka’s indisciplined batsmen were often impeccable. If the SSC surface is as flat as it often is, Morkel’s height may have him well-placed to launch an expedition to find signs of life on the pitch.
In the most left-field selection move Sri Lanka has made in some time, wicketkeeper Niroshan Dickwella has been flown in from England. Angelo Mathews said Chandimal was still in the mix, despite what SLC had said on Tuesday, but it appears Dickwella is likely to play. Shaminda Eranga has also been ruled out through injury, so Sri Lanka will make at least two changes to the XI. Dhammika Prasad, who also plays for SSC in first-class cricket, is the frontrunner to replace Eranga. The only addition to the South Africa camp has been Gary Kirsten’s arrival, as part of his role as a team consultant. South Africa may not want to make significant changes to their winning combination, but Vernon Philander’s place seems under some threat, after he went wicket-less in Galle.
Sri Lanka: Upul Tharanga, Kaushal Silva, Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Lahiru Thirimanne, Angelo Mathews (capt), Niroshan Dickwella (wk), Dilruwan Perera, Dhammika Prasad, Rangana Herath, Suranga Lakmal
South Africa: Alviro Peterson, Dean Elgar, Faf du Plessis, Hashim Amla (capt.), AB de Villiers, Quinton de Kock (wk), JP Duminy, Vernon Philander/ Wayne Parnell, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Imran Tahir.
LONDON: England will face the ultimate test of their stated desire to play bold and aggressive ...