Buoyed after a refreshing win against the Windies in the latter half of a gruelling tour, Sri Lanka welcome South Africa at home, knowing quite well that there are no favourites in this contest. The Proteas are on the back of series wins against India and Australia at home but without AB de Villiers they are no Ionger the same force, particularly on sub-continental wickets.
Sri Lanka will be pumped up by the fact that they have some prominent names returning to the squad after injuries, spicing up their options ahead of the series. The fortunes of Dinesh Chandimal making it to the final XI still hangs in the balance but they have enough firepower in the middle-order to not lose sleep over the decision.
Here we try to identify Sri Lanka’s ideal XI ahead of the first Test.
With Dimuth Karunaratne returning to the fold, Sri Lanka have one less worry at the top. Opening had been an area of concern in West Indies where Danushka Gunathilaka and Mahela Udawatte tried to cover up. Kusal Mendis moved back to the middle-order in the second and third Tests in West Indies but with Angelo Mathews returning, Mendis could be pushed back to open the innings with Karunaratne.
The duo are in fact Sri Lanka’s best Test openers since 2016 (in terms of averages). Karunaratne has 4 hundreds opening the batting in the last two years and averages 34.75 from 24 matches. Kusal Mendis has played a majority of these games in the middle-order but has shown tremendous potential as an opener in the recent past. He averages a whopping 75.40 in 5 innings’ at the top of the batting line-up and pushing him to open would guard Lanka against the guile of Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and possibly even Dale Steyn.
The other options are Kusal Perera (if fit) and Danushka Gunathilaka who could also chip in with a few overs of off-spin.
Ideal options: Dimuth Karunaratne and Kusal Mendis
With Dinesh Chandimal still uncertain (and most likely out) for the series owing to his ball tampering ban, Sri Lanka will need strength in the middle order and luckily for then, Angelo Mathews makes a timely return to the squad. Their most experienced campaigner and a fabulous player of spin, Mathews will be the lynchpin of Sri Lanka’s batting in this series, particularly if the South African seamers start finding reverse swing.
Mendis’ promotion to the top opens up the no.3 spot which is likely to be handled by Dhananjaya de Silva. The talented batsman was used in that position during the West Indian tour and although he wasn’t successful, de Silva warrants a longer run being among the most technically sound of Lankan batsmen. Mathews should occupy the no.4 spot unless Chandimal is available. If he isn’t, Gunathilaka could also come into the starting XI.
Roshen Silva and Niroshan Dickwella should complete the middle-order although Kusal Perera could be a promising option at no.7, if he is available. There is also the option of going in with five bowlers with Dilruwan Perera, who has had some success with the bat, at no.7. But Lanka are unlikely to take that risk with the kind of bowling attack the Proteas have. They can also rely on Mathews to get in a few overs if their four bowlers tire out.
Ideal options: Dhananjaya de Silva, Dinesh Chandimal/Danushka Gunathilaka/Kusal Perera/Dilruwan Perera, Angelo Mathews, Roshen Silva, Niroshan Dickwella
The performance of Kasun Rajitha, Suranga Lakmal and Lahiru Kumara were so promising that dropping one of them seems a hard task all of a sudden. However, if Sri Lanka do plan on a seven-man batting line-up, they will have to pick two out of the three if they are to play two spinners.
Rajitha was phenomenal with his lines and extra zip of the surface and should be the ideal man to partner Suranga Lakmal with the new ball. Lahiru Kumara was mighty impressive too but his tendency to leak runs, especially in his third and fourth spells ought to tilt the balance in Rajitha’s favour.
Ideal options: Suranga Lakmal, Kasun Rajitha
Sri Lanka made a bold move by not picking Rangana Herath for the last two Tests against West Indies and the results were there for all to see. The pace bowlers clicked in unison and did what their spinners were doing for years. The template is set but Lanka would be tempted to return to Herath against South Africa whose batsmen aren’t the best against spin. Lakshan Sandakan is another option in this regard. A chinaman spinner, Sandakan could be a variety not many South African batsmen would have faced. However, with Tabraiz Shamsi, a similar bowler, in their squad, South Africa can work on their game against Shamsi and reduce the mystery aspect surrounding Sandakan.
Dilruwan Perera’s batting abilities are promising enough to consider him in the XI but his bowling might need more fine-tuning. With South Africa’s top seven having just two left-handers, Sri Lanka might ponder over Perera’s inclusion. Sandakan, with his mystery, could still be a better pick than Perera but it considerably shortens Lanka’s batting line-up. That said, with a secure top seven, Hathurusinga can be trusted to pick the best two spinners in the squad. One can sense Sandakan just edging ahead of Perera here.
Ideal options: Rangana Herath, Lakshan Sandakan