Young Sri Lanka face testing tour

2011-12-03 00:00

IN their quest to build momentum ahead of a crucial tour of England in 2012, key Protea players need to be ruthless in their performances against the touring Sri Lankans.

Sri Lanka kick off their tour with a three-day match against South Africa A starting on December 9.

After drawing against Australia, Gary Kirsten’s team is full of confidence and can look forward to a productive summer.

For the first time since the retirement of Shaun Pollock, Kirsten has found a fitting solution to the backup bowling problem that South Africa faced in the pace department. Vernon Philander showed why he has been the top wicket taker in the past two instalments of the SuperSport Series and his line and length could give Dale Steyn and Morné Morkel a bit of space to be creative and develop their swing bowling.

More good news for South Africa is the return to form of Graeme Smith. Chasing a winning total of 236 on a Newlands track that saw both Australia and South Africa bowled out on the second day, disciplined batting would be needed to win the Test.

Smith batted 232 minutes to score 101, which shows an element of patience, because in the last five instances where he scored centuries lower then 120, he batted for an average of 150 minutes. He was well supported by Hashim Amla in Cape Town, who has scored four centuries in his last 10 innings.

Also good news is that the Proteas showed that they can bowl sides out in the last innings of a Test, which they failed to do twice against England in the 2009/2010 series and once against India in the 2010/2011 series.

What will be interesting in the course of the series will be the performances of Imran Tahir and the response of the Sri Lankans to his bowling.

Traditionally the tourists are good players of spin bowling on tracks that are slow and generate significant turn. South African spin tracks tend to be a lot quicker and bouncier where the ball skids on to the batsmen.

With his four wickets in the last Test against Australia, Tahir has shown that he can take wickets at crucial times. But problematic for South Africa is that he is expensive in taking those wickets. At the Wanderers he finished with figures of 3/55 in the first innings and 1/63 in the second innings. By comparison Nathan Lyons, who is also finding his feet, took 5/34 and 1/ 73 for Australia in his debut Test in Sri Lanka.

Tahir will need to focus on being more economical while taking wickets; he will also need to be able to bowl extended spells from one end while the pace bowlers rest in the outfield. Tahir only bowled 10 overs in the first test in Cape Town and 30 overs at the Wanderers.

Sri Lanka last toured South Africa in 2002/2003 and the current squad is vastly different from the one on that tour, so they come into the tour with an element of unpredictability. This is also because the last time South Africa visited Sri Lanka was in 2006/2007, again a season where most of the current Sri Lankan squad were not present.

But this also means that few of the Sri Lankan players have bowled to the likes of Smith and Amla or have faced Steyn or Morkel. Should Sri Lanka retain the same squad that faced Australia at home earlier this year, only Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene have playing experience in South African conditions.

Compounding this unpredictability is the fact that their pace attack has being struck by injuries. None of Nuwan Kulasekara, Shaminda Eranga or Dhammika Prasad could be considered for the touring squad and Suranga Lakmal pulled out because of an ankle injury.

This means that veteran fast bowler Dilhara Fernando, who was a late inclusion, will have to lead the tourist’s attack in Pretoria in the hope that one of the injured pace bowlers are fit enough to play in the Kingsmead Boxing Day Test. Fernando is the only member of that pace attack who has experience of South African wickets, so he may bowl a lot of overs in all three Tests.

This tour might present the tourists with an opportunity to build on their youthful squad. But it might turn into a disappointing time for Sri Lanka, because from South Africa they travel to Australia and then to Bangladesh, and a heavy loss to South Africa might affect their confidence.

After the disappointing loss to Australia at the Wanderers, where Australia drew the series, South Africa will need to beat Sri Lanka comprehensively in order to build momentum and confidence ahead of next year’s tour of England. That tour could be a top-of-the-table clash should South Africa, currently ranked number two in the world in Test cricket, and England, currently the top-ranked side, continue their winning ways.

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