15 July 2014
There will be a visible change to the South African cricket team when it takes on Sri Lanka in the first test at the Galle International Stadium. Graeme Smith, the most capped test captain in history, has retired and Hashim Amla, his successor, will lead the team for the first time on Wednesday.
Amla was named captain of the test side in June, thus becoming the first player of colour to be permanently appointed to the position.
Leading by example
Widely respected, not only for his excellence as a player but also for the example he sets as a person, he appears to be a natural fit for the position. He has previous experience of captaincy at a high level too, having led the Dolphins’ franchise and the South African under-19 team.
Amla enters the two-test series in excellent form, having scored consecutive centuries and a 46 in South Africa’s 2-1 win in the one-day international series, which concluded on the weekend. He will know that a 2-0 series win would lift the Proteas back to number one in the test rankings, a position they ceded to Australia earlier this year.
After Smith’s retirement, Dean Elgar, the obvious replacement for the long-time captain as an opening batsman, was awarded a contract by Cricket South Africa. He has big shoes to fill.
In his nine-test career, the 27-year-old has so far scored 325 runs at an average of 29.54. That average is a little low, but he has time on his side to improve on it and become a staple at the top of the order, like the man he replaces.
The loss of experience
Smith has followed Mark Boucher and Jacques Kallis into retirement, thus leaving the Proteas without three of the most experienced and best players in South Africa’s history.
While AB de Villiers, ranked number one among test batsmen, has performed admirably as a wicketkeeper/batsman in Boucher’s place, Faf du Plessis will surely find it harder to replace Kallis at number four in the batting order. He has, however, looked very Kallis-like in some innings of outstanding concentration against Australia and India, and with an average of 52.42 in 14 tests, has made a very solid start to his test career.
On the subject of the great all-rounder, JP Duminy, an off-spinner, will likely be the man called on to send down the overs that Kallis, a seamer, used to contribute.
The bowling attack, in contrast to the batting line-up, is well set, with the pace trio of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel set to provide a varied set of questions for the Sri Lankan batsmen.
The bigger question, though, will be about South Africa’s approach to spin. They have Duminy, a strong batsman as an option, but will they add another bowler in the form of Dane Piedt?
The Sri Lankan spinners have a strong record in Galle, with Rangana Herath having snared 48 wickets in nine previous matches at the ground, leaving him second on the all-time list at the stadium, trailing only test cricket’s all-time leading wicket-taker Muttiah Muralitharan.
‘Spin is always a factor’
“Spin is always a factor when you come to the sub-continent, that’s why they prepare wickets to suit their bowlers,” South African quick Vernon Philander said in an interview in Galle on Monday.
“He (Herath) is going to be a big threat, but our batsmen played him quite well in the last one-dayer in Hambantota, so hopefully we can continue to do so. I’d like to see our guys stepping up against the spinners and playing them to the best of their abilities.”
Philander, ranked third in the test bowling rankings, with Steyn at one and Morkel at 16, said taking early wickets will be crucial to the Proteas’ success.
‘You want to be striking with the new ball’
“The more damage you can do with the new ball the better,” he explained. “You want batsmen five, six and seven batting against a newish nut. In these conditions you want to be striking with the new ball. Our lines up front need to get the batsmen to play.
“I wouldn’t really say that lengths change, it’s more the line of attack,” he said of bowling on the sub-continent. “You need to sit on that off-stump line, and make sure you get the LBW into the game. The wider ball becomes the knick-off. Hopefully we can adjust really quickly and assess conditions accordingly.”
Hot and humid
The weather conditions in Galle have been hot and humid with occasional showers, and that could bring swing into the equation, Philander said hopefully.
“There is a bit of moisture and overhead conditions around, which will favour the swing bowlers. We have to wait and see what the deck looks like tomorrow and on the morning of the test.”
South Africa vs Sri Lanka
South Africa and Sri Lanka have met in 20 tests previously, with the Proteas winning 10, the islanders’ five, and five matches being drawn.
While the overall record favours South Africa, their record in Sri Lanka indicates that a serious challenge awaits Hashim Amla and company: four of the five Sri Lankan wins over the Proteas have come in Sri Lanka, with South Africa winning just twice away from home.