Galle: The Galle International Stadium is one of the world’s most picturesque cricket venues with the imposing Dutch fortress in the background and the spectacular view of the Indian Ocean. The sea is rough and it is not a smooth sailing for the fishing boats, much like the choppy waters that the Sri Lankan cricket team has found itself in recent times. Frequent changes in the coaching set-up with three different coaches in charge in last one year, disquiet in the administrative set-up of the board and the recent ball-tampering controversy have ensured the hosts are feeling the heat as the first Test match against South Africa gets underway here on Thursday.
The prospect of facing the fury of the South Africa’s strong bowling line-up — boosted by the return of Dale Steyn — will be a daunting task. Add to it the sense of disquiet hanging over the hosts, suitably manifested by the confusion prevailing over the fate of their skipper Dinesh Chandimal. Chandimal has already served a one-match ban for ball-tampering, but now faces a probable two-match suspension for refusing to take the field for two hours during the Test match at St Lucia. The hearing in this case is expected to commence at 6 pm local time.
Chandimal, along with the coach, has already pleaded guilty to the charge and a verdict against the two will mean the captain and coach Chandika Hathurasinghe will have to sit out of the entire two-match Test series.
If Chandimal misses out, fast bowler Suranga Lakmal will lead the side. Lakmal had been impressive in the captaincy role during the last Test match against the West Indies in Barbados where Sri Lanka shrugged off all the controversies surrounding ball tampering with a stirring series-levelling victory in Barbados.
Lakmal will spearhead the fast-bowling attack along side Lahiru Kumara, who was a revelation in the Caribbean bagging 17 wickets in the three Tests. The third pacer’s slot is expected to go to Kasun Rajitha, who made his Test debut in the West Indies. The ageless Rangana Herath, who had injured his fingers during the West Indies tour, has recovered fully and will once again lead the spin attack. At 40, the left-arm spinner maybe in the twilight of his career and has hinted at calling time to his career after a couple of more series. However, with 418 Test wickets to his name, he is still a match-winner, especially at home and against a side known to be vulnerable against spin.
The batting department will be boosted by the return of Dimuth Karunaratne, who had fractured his finger and missed out on the Caribbean tour. He had passed the fitness test with flying colours, hitting a hundred during the 'A' tour in Bangladesh. The hosts will also be relying heavily on the in-form Kusal Mendis to counter the South African bowling attack.
Pace bowling will be South Africa’s strongest suit, and it will be boosted by the return of Dale Steyn. The paceman has not been venomous on his return in the county circuit as well as in the lone tour game in Sri Lanka. But the veteran is hoping to save his best on his Test return in Galle. Past three years have seen Steyn being laid low by a number of injuries and he has missed 27 out of 35 Test matches played by South Africa in that duration. There is an added motivation for him as he is just three short of overhauling Shaun Pollock’s record of 421 Test scalps to become the leading wicket taker for his country in five-day cricket. In fact, Steyn was one of the heroes who scripted a rare series win for the Proteas in Asia during their last tour to Sri Lanka in 2014, bagging nine wickets in Galle.
This will be South Africa’s first Test since Morne Morkel's retirement, but such has been their lethal fast-bowling options — Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander, and Lungi Ngidi, to name a few — that they will hardly feel his absence. Keshav Maharaj will lead the spin department and the left-arm spinner is likely to be the only slow bowler included for Galle. He will be feeling the pressure as it will be his first Test assignment in Asia.
The emergence of Aiden Markram has been one of the brightest spots for South Africa in recent times. The opener hit two hundreds and a half century during their 3-1 series win at home against Australia. Hashim Amla, the lynchpin of the South African batting line up, had a quiet series by his standards against India and Australia and will look to bounce back in style.
The world’s number two side in Tests, South Africa clearly hold an upper hand having won nine out their last ten series. Sri Lanka, much like the fort in the backdrop of the Galle Stadium, will be hoping to withstand the odds to hold their rivals at bay.