SA’s Lanka task now tougher

Russell Domingo, Alan Donald and Hashim Amla (Gallo Images)
Russell Domingo, Alan Donald and Hashim Amla (Gallo Images)

Cape Town – The Proteas, a team in transition in various respects, have just been served a reminder of how demanding their fast-looming tour to Sri Lanka will be.

The Lankans on Tuesday completed one of the most successful trips abroad in their history, earning a clean sweep of triumphs against England across the three formats.

Having already won the once-off Twenty20 international, they then clinched the one-day international series 3-2 ... but the cherry on top came by beating Alastair Cook’s side 1-0 in the two-Test series.

They ticked off that feat with a ball to spare on the dramatic, high-quality fifth day’s play in the Headingley decider, dismissing England’s No 11 batsman James Anderson for a gutsy, 55-ball duck to win by exactly 100 runs (well after 19:00 local time) after they had clung on themselves for a draw in the first encounter at Lord’s.

Sri Lanka did win a once-off Test against the same opponents at The Oval in 1998 by 10 wickets, but this was the historic first time they have beaten away any of the modern “big three” powers outside the Subcontinent – Australia, England and South Africa – in what can be termed a properly-constituted series.

The Lankans started the Test series seventh in the world rankings, but have climbed to fifth through their English achievement and will now return home brimful of confidence – and just as importantly battle-sharp – for the challenge of the Proteas in the sultry, familiar conditions they so prefer.

As if they didn’t know it already, Hashim Amla’s tourists were reminded on Tuesday, in the afterglow of the enthralling Leeds triumph, by commentator and former England captain Nasser Hussain: “They are fighters, these Sri Lankans; they just don’t give up at any stage ... they smile off the pitch but are smiling assassins on it.”

Sri Lanka would arguably have been considered narrow favourites anyway for the two-Test series against the Proteas – beginning in Galle on July 16 – given their supremacy at home in recent times; South Africa last won there in 1993.

But that belief is likely to strengthen following their performance in England under the leadership of all-rounder Angelo Mathews, who produced what Ian Botham hailed as “one of the best captain’s centuries I’ve seen for a while” in striking 160 in the Sri Lankan second knock at Headingley after they had trailed by more than 100 runs on the first.

The Lankans may be finding bowling life harder since the retirement of spin wizard Muttiah Muralitharan, who so often broke South African hearts in his heyday, but the England series served notice that their seam attack is lively and resourceful.

The versatile Mathews recorded tons at both Lord’s and Headingley, whilst the Lankans’ highly-respected two bedrock batsmen, Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, 37 and 36 respectively, showed that they have lost none of their crease-hogging instincts.

Sangakkara got 342 series runs at an average of 85.50 and Jayawardene 174 at 43.50; the pair are remembered for posting a record 624 for the third wicket against the Proteas in Colombo in 2006 during the 2-0 series triumph for the hosts.

The ODI members of the South African tour party leave for Sri Lanka on Sunday, for a three-match series in that format.

It is very much out of season for many of the Proteas’ Test players, who will follow shortly afterwards, but at least several “crossover” stars will get a valuable tune-up opportunity in the ODIs and coach Russell Domingo is thankful for that very minor luxury at an otherwise tricky time of year in both conditioning and form terms, given the onset of winter back home.

The Lankans lie third on the ICC rankings for ODIs, and South Africa a spot behind in fourth.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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