Durban – In four Test series spread across 14 years which saw some of the legends of Sri Lankan cricket play on these shores, the island nation has won just the one match.
Marvan Attapatu, Arjuna Ranatunga, Chaminda Vaas, Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Muttiah Muralitharan, Sanath Jayasuriya and Tillakaratne Dilshan have all been, played and got beaten every time in South Africa.
The lone highlight was five years ago in Durban when, inspired by centuries from Thilan Samaraweera in the first innings and Sangakkara in the second, coupled with a match haul of 9-128 from Rangana Herath, Sri Lanka beat the Proteas by 208 runs.
All those greats, all those Tests and just one win on South African soil.
And given the recent turnaround in the South African players’ confidence and the team’s form, not many are giving the Sri Lankans a chance of adding to that sole Test match win when the three-match series kicks off at St George’s Park in Port Elizabeth in eight days’ time.
Yet there is reason for South Africa to be cautious and Sri Lanka to be optimistic. Angelo Mathews’ team are themselves on a good run, having won each of their last five Tests, including a whitewash of Australia.
Giving further cause for hope is that the opening Test of the series will be played at a venue where conditions most closely resemble what Mathews’ team are accustomed to back home.
“They will feel more comfortable there because the bounce is not as appreciable as up north,” said Robin Peterson, who grew up playing at St George’s Park.
“Sri Lanka’s best chance will come at St George’s.”
Sri Lanka have never played a Test in Port Elizabeth and previous series have usually started up on the Highveld, where pace and bounce are appreciable and uncomfortable for the sub-continent teams.
Sri Lanka did attempt to accelerate their acclimatisation to those kinds of conditions by training on granite pitches at home before they arrived here.
In addition, they’ve given themselves 12 days of training which includes a three-day tour match in Potchefstroom to help them to acclimatise.
Yet they will pitch up in PE later this week and probably find they can adopt tactics to which they are most familiar when the Test starts on Boxing Day.
“It’s similar to playing on the sub-continent,” said Peterson. “The game goes through phases; there are times (as a batsman) when you won’t score quickly, you need to be patient, and there will be times where the runs come quick. When you have to be patient, it’s important you do that, absorb the pressure and wear the bowlers down.”
Patience is the key also for the bowlers, said Peterson. “You have to keep it simple, you won’t be blasting batsmen out, or bowling at their heads. As the game goes on, the ball will start to reverse.”
Spin naturally plays a big part at St George’s Park and in Herath (351 wickets in 75 Tests) Sri Lanka have one of the form tweakers of the modern game.
The 38-year-old’s 54 wickets from just eight Tests this year leaves him second only to India’s Ravi Ashwin for the most wickets in 2016.
“He’s kinda old school,” Peterson says with admiration. “He doesn’t spin it appreciably, he undercuts the ball a lot. He’s a very experienced and a very smart bowler. He doesn’t go overboard, and his variations are subtle.
“He uses the crease very cleverly; sometimes he goes wider, then he’ll come very tight to the wickets and of course he’s very accurate.”
He was destroyer-in-chief of the Australians in that series in August, picking up 28 wickets in the three Tests at an average of 12.75. He’s overall record against South Africa is a good one too: 25 wickets in six Tests at 27.72.
The South Africans will look back at the series five years ago and find that, while he tore them apart in Durban, in Tests one and three they largely controlled him although it’s significant that they were never able to dominate, such is his control and accuracy.
“If you’re facing him on the first day it’s important to understand he won’t turn the ball as much and you probably won’t nick off.
The lbw will be a mode of dismissal to be aware of. But if there is turn, batters must be aware of the nick off.”
Four of Herath’s nine wickets in the Durban Test win came from lbw decisions.
Sri Lanka have a solid batting line-up and Dhananjaya de Silva and Kusal Mendis starred against Australia, and with Mathews and Dinesh Chandimal fit again after missing the recent tour to Zimbabwe, there is enough talent in the Sri Lankan squad to keep the Proteas on their toes.
Peterson doesn’t see the recent official handing over of the captaincy from AB de Villiers to Faf du Plessis being a distraction.
“It will be a case of starting up the bus again. Faf has been captaining for a while now, so it looks like everyone is comfortable with him.
“I expect South Africa to gain the initiative and then drive home the advantage.”
Sri Lanka in South Africa
1997/98: SA won 2-0 (2 Tests)
2000/2001: SA won 2-0 (3)
2002/03: SA won 2-0 (2)
2011/12: SA won 2-1 (3)
South Africa: Dean Elgar, Stephen Cook, Hashim Amla, JP Duminy, Faf du Plessis (capt), Temba Bavuma, Quinton de Kock, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada, Keshav Maharaj, Kyle Abbott, Wayne Parnell, Theunis de Bruyn.
Sri Lanka: Angelo Mathews (capt), Dinesh Chandimal, Kusal Mendis, Kusal Perera, Dimuth Karunaratne, Kaushal Silva, Dhananjaya de Silva, Upul Tharanga, Lahiru Kumara, Vikum Sanjaya, Nuwan Pradeep, Dushmantha Chameera, Suranga Lakmal, Dilruwan Perera, Rangana Herath
1st Test 26-30 December, Port Elizabeth
2nd Test 2-6 January, Cape Town
3rd Test 12-16 January, Johannesburg
The Sunday Tribune