Sri Lanka vs South Africa – The X Factors

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With the most anticipated South Africa tour of Sri Lanka 2018 set to begin shortly, we take a look at five ‘X’ factors which could turn games.

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The African speed guns

The Lankan pitches will not provide any assistance whatsoever to the seamers but the South African seam bowling contingent can be lethal on any dust bowl and will stick to their strength which is PACE.

In 2014, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel shared 25 wickets between them in 2 Tests. With the big man Morkel having retired, this time around veteran Steyn will combine with Kagiso Rabada, the world’s number one-ranked Test bowler and Vernon Philander while up and coming pacer Lungi Ngidi is likely to sit on the bench.

Despite coming back after an injury lay off, Steyn will pose some serious questions to the Lankans who had a terrible time in the Windies when faced with a quality pace attack, that included Shannon Gabriel, Kemar Roach and Jason Holder, on seam-friendly surfaces.

The Proteas seamers had their first taste of unresponsive surfaces during their tour game at the P. Sara Oval, which is considered the best track for fast bowling in Sri Lanka. If that surface is anything to go by, there is no doubt that they will have to be at their best to trouble the Lankans in spin-friendly conditions.

“If it looks like it’s going to be a good pitch and we feel like having the extra pace is going to make a difference to the Sri Lankans‚ then we’ll consider that option. Our fast bowling has been the bedrock of our success for a long time, and I’m pretty sure we’ll continue with three fast bowlers,” South Africa Head Coach Ottis Gibson said after the tour game, when asked if playing the extra spinner was an option they were looking at.

Read: Sri Lanka vs South Africa Test Series 2018 – Let’s talk Numbers

The Lankan spin threat

Rangana Herath is nearing retirement – instead of sitting on a comfortable sofa and enjoying his life after cricket, he is fighting against his own body to be fit for another ‘How to bamboozle batsmen in Galle’ episode.

He averages 17 at home, having taken 164 wickets in 24 matches which Sri Lanka have won, compared to his career average of 28. Herath, the maestro was one of the architects in Sri Lanka’s last win in Durban in 2011 too.

Many of the South Africans in the current squad have not faced Herath in spin-friendly conditions and Sri Lanka would be tempted to field even an 80% fit Herath in Galle, especially against the Proteas.

Dilruwan Perera adds experience and consistency to the Lankan spin attack which is most likely to have three spinners, with either Akila Dananjaya or Lakshan Sandakan joining the experienced duo.

There is a school of thought that, part-time spinner Dhananjaya De Silva could do the third spinner’s role but the Proteas will definitely not like the idea of facing the mystery of Akila or the wrist-spin of Sandakan in Galle.

“Everybody knows that the conditions in Sri Lanka will favour spinners so we will definitely try to maximize that advantage as always.” Sri Lanka Test Captain Dinesh Chandimal said at the pre-tour press conference.

Unsettled middle-order

With AB De Villiers retiring from international cricket, the South African middle-order will have a giant hole which the Lankans would be very keen to expose. Temba Bavuma, Theunis De Bruyn and Heinrich Klassen are some of the players who will be looking to replace AB permanently.

“It will be a nice opportunity for Temba [Bavuma] or somebody else to put his peg in the ground and make the position his own again.” Skipper Du Plessis had said in the team welcoming ceremony.

In the past 10 Test matches, South Africa has gone in with 5 specialist bowlers on 6 occasions as they opted for the 7 batsmen strategy only against Australia in the recent four-Test series.

The Lankans will have their own problems in the middle order with regular skipper Dinesh Chandimal set to miss the series. More than his leadership, Sri Lanka will miss his experience in the middle order as he has been one of the leading run-scorers for the Lions during the past few years.

With both teams having their own middle-order woes, it will be interesting to see whether they will be tempted to go in with 6 batsmen and 5 bowlers or play the extra batsman, depending on the conditions.

In the Caribbean, Sri Lanka opted initially for the 6 batsmen strategy but after the loss in the first Test, they reverted to the 7 batsmen combination.

Read More: Can Sri Lanka find some ‘Mahela magic’ in Galle?

Mendis vs Markram

The young batting talents in both camps are exciting. Both Kusal Mendis and Aiden Markram led their respective U19 sides in 2014, now, four years later, they are the rising stars of the next generation.

Mendis has been shuffled around the top-order during the past couple of years and more recently in the Caribbean too, but will probably get back into the opening slot, especially since Sri Lanka will be playing at home.

The Sri Lankan think-tank believes that Mendis is more suited to open in sub-continental conditions that favour his aggressive, positive style of batting. Mendis loves dominating the opposition and with Dhananjaya De Silva batting at number 3, and partnering up with Dimuth Karunarathne, he will have enough freedom to get Sri Lanka off to a steady start.

Markram has made a stellar start to his career, averaging 55 in 10 Tests, scoring 1000 runs at home against top oppositions in Australia and India, but how well he manages the Lankan challenge on spin-friendly conditions will determine the Proteas’ plans going forward.

After his first practice session in Sri Lanka with the Test team, Markram said, I am excited to do well, but I am not going to put any additional pressure on me because it is outside South Africa. I don’t want to be labelled as the guy who only does well in home conditions”

Read Also: Who are the favourites?

Ball-tampering microscope

The captains from both camps, Faf Du Plessis and Dinesh Chandimal have plenty in common, at least in terms of ball-tampering.

Chandimal might be out of the series for another offence but all eyes and at least two or three cameras will surely follow how both teams maintain the condition of the ball.

The last time South Africa were in Sri Lanka, Vernon Philander’s was charged with ball-tampering and penalized for “scratching the ball with his fingers and thumb”.

There was controversy surrounding the airing of the footage back then, with Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) insisting on getting the producers to air it despite pressure from Cricket South Africa (CSA) to refrain from doing so.

“I have probably said it too much but there are too many grey areas when it comes to the ICC and the rules. One, you want clarity and, two, you want consistency and that’s definitely something that’s not been part of that body of laws for a while now,” Du Plessis mentioned at the pre-tour joint press conference.