The rough Indian Ocean hitting the shores of Galle has made way to a more tranquil Arabian Sea along the coastline of Colombo, the venue of the second and the final Test match between Sri Lanka and South Africa. The dark clouds have disappeared and a clear blue sky greets the Sri Lankan team at the Sinhalese Sports Club (SSC) ground. It mirrors the mood in the home camp which has managed to dispel the gloom that haunted the team in lead up to the series with a stunning victory. The ball tampering controversy and the bans to their captain, coach and manager have been consigned to mere footnotes to the match narrative as Sri Lanka’s potent spin forces mauled the No 2 Test side in the world. On the other hand, a storm is brewing for Faf du Plessis and his men as they brace themselves for yet another trial by spin.
SSC with its grassy banks for spectators may have some resemblance to the venues in South Africa but that is where the similarities end. The 22 yard in the middle will favour the spinners and the last Test match at SSC in August 2017 saw India’s Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja create mayhem among the Sri Lankan ranks. So once again, the home team will rely heavily on the spin trio of Rangana Herath, Dilruwan Perera and Lakshan Sandakan.
Herath has been effective with the new ball which means Sri Lanka can go with a solitary fast bowler in captain Suranga Lakmal. Herath’s partner in crime in the spin department Dilruwan Perera had been struggling with his performance in recent times. His place in the side had come under the scanner with the likes of Akila Dananjaya waiting in the wings. But the 35-year-old came to the party with his career best performance bagging 6 for 32 in the second innings at Galle. His ten-wicket haul in the match could not have come at a better time for the off spinner. With the imminent retirement of Herath by the end of the year, Perera is expected to be the leader of the Sri Lankan spin attack. In the three Tests that he has played against South Africa in his career, Perera boasts of a staggering 26-wicket haul.
Dimuth Karunaratne made a rousing return after missing out on the West Indies tour due to a finger injury. His unbeaten century and a fifty in the second innings earned him the Man of the Match award. The left-hander has been a silent performer with the bat and despite being the fifth highest run-getter and the second most prolific opening batsmen in 2017, Karunaratne has hardly got the recognition. Scoring over 1,000 runs in the calendar year was not made any easier by the constant chopping and changing of his opening partners. The Sri Lankan think tank has tried the likes of Kusal Mendis, Kaushal Silva, Kusal Perera, Upul Tharanga and Danushka Gunathilaka in recent times to partner Karunaratne but with little success.
The South African pace arsenal was expected to deliver the knockout punch against the Sri Lankans. Though the world’s number one ranked Test bowler Kagiso Rabada looked menacing in patches, Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander lacked the firepower. Steyn made his much anticipated comeback after the heel injury managed to equal the record of Shaun Pollock as South Africa’s leading wicket taker with 422 wickets but did not look threatening. The Proteas will be expecting much more from him than merely overhauling Pollock’s record at SSC if they harbour hopes of levelling the series.
The inexperienced spin attack has been further dented by the personal emergency to Tabrez Shamsi who had to fly back to South Africa to be with his family. Though the left-arm wrist spinner is back in Sri Lanka, the South African team management is unsure whether his body will be able to cope with the rigours of a Test match after long flights. South Africa has another spinner- uncapped Shaun von Berg in the squad who can get an opportunity if Shamsi is ruled out.
The South African batting has been a cause of a major worry and the meltdown in the second innings where the visitors crashed to their lowest ever Test score since their readmission to Tests in 1992 exposed not only technical frailties but mental cobwebs in tackling spin. One of the better players of spin, Hashim Amla looked a pale shadow of his former self being dismissed twice to spin almost playing similar shots. The lynch-pin of South African batting for several years, Amla has averaged a paltry 25.87 in 2018 which means pressure will be on him to deliver. Aiden Markram, hailed as one of the most promising South African batsmen in recent times, proved he has miles to go and plenty to learn on how to adapt to the conditions in Asia.
In their last series played between the two countries in Sri Lanka, South Africa had played out a gripping draw at SSC. In the second Test, on a turning track, the visitors lost eight wickets in their fourth innings but batted for 111 overs to deny Sri Lankans a victory. Du Plessis and his men will have to put up yet another plucky display to avoid a 2-0 drubbing.
Trophies of the 1996 World Cup and the 2014 World T20, two of Sri Lanka’s biggest cricketing achievements, are displayed at SSC, the headquarters of Sri Lanka Cricket. Victory over South Africa may not be in the same league but if Lakmal and Co can win this Test, it will be one of the most inspirational wins and an important step for their road to redemption.