Sri Lanka’s Lasith Malinga Photo: Ryan Wilkisky/BackapagePix

In a series of features we will be running this week in the build-up to the ICC Champions Trophy, cricket writer Zaahier Adams profiles South Africa’s Group 2 rivals Sri Lanka, Pakistan and defending champions India.

Sri Lanka

On paper, and in English conditions, Sri Lanka should be no match for South Africa in the Group B ICC Champions Trophy opener on Saturday at The Oval (11.30am start).

It was only a few months ago that the Proteas whitewashed a helpless Sri Lankan side 5-0 at home. It wasn’t just the fact that the visitors lost every match, but rather that the margins of victory were big.

The young and inexperienced Sri Lankan bowling line-up simply struggled to contain the Proteas batting unit, with Faf du Plessis highlighting the gulf between the sides by smashing a career-best 185 at Newlands.

Equally, when it was the batsmen’s turn, they did not have technical capacity to deal with the intensity of the SA pace attack or guile of leg-spinner Imran Tahir.

The Sri Lankans sorely missed the experience of their skipper Angelo Mathews, who returned home after the T20 series due to injury. But with Mathews back at the helm for the Champions Trophy, the Sri Lankan middle-order will have a great more steel to accompany the precocious talents of youngsters Kusal Mendis and Niroshan Dickwella.

Both top-order batsmen will benefit from having the assured presence of Mathews batting below them.

If the batsmen are pleased to have a wise-head among them, then the bowlers will be jumping with joy that their long-time talisman Lasith Malinga will also be back in the saddle for the Champions Trophy. The fast bowler has not played a one-day international since 2015 – mainly through injury – but showed in the IPL that he is fit and raring to go.

Coupled with the appointment of former SA fast bowler Allan Donald as a bowling consultant for the Champions Trophy, and suddenly Sri Lanka have the building blocks to pose a far greater challenge to the Proteas on Saturday.

Donald, who has worked with the Proteas, England, Australia and New Zealand, is excited about his new charges and their ability to spring a major upset in London.

“The Sri Lankan attack has what it takes to win the tournament,” Donald recently said. “Sri Lanka has a lot of skills. A lot of leadership with the ball ... what is there to be scared of?”

It is a warning to be heeded, especially considering the islanders’ impressive record at major ICC tournaments.

Although legends such as Kumar Sangakkara is churning out five successive hundreds for Sussex in the county championship instead of the national team these days, the Sri Lankans are renowned for holding their nerve in pressure games – which is exactly what the Champions Trophy is all about!

X-Factor man: Lasith Malinga

Age 33, Matches 191, Wickets 291, BB 6/38, Ave 27.77

With his unique action “Slinga” Malinga will always be a threat, rifling in those yorkers at the base of the stumps. Although the veteran has lost a yard of pace over the years, his slower-ball variations remain up there with the very best during the death overs.

Champions Trophy history

1998 Semi-finalists

2000 Quarter-finalists

2002 Joint-champions

2004 Knocked out in the group stage

2006 Knocked out in the group stage

2009 Knocked out in the group stage

2013 Semi-finalists

Squad

Angelo Mathews (c), Dinesh Chandimal (wk), Upul Tharanga, Niroshan Dickwella, Kusal Mendis, Kusal Perera, Chamara Kapugedera, Asela Gunaratne, Lasith Malinga, Suranga Lakmal, Nuwan Kulasekara, Nuwan Pradeep, Thisara Perera, Lakshan Sandakan, Seekkuge Prasanna

PAKISTAN

Much like their Sri Lankan counterparts, Pakistan are also a side that are experiencing a transition. Stalwarts like Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq have moved on in all formats and Pakistan have yet to find replacements who are able to replicate the consistency the duo showed over the years. 

There has been a shake-up within the leadership too, with wicketkeeper Safraz Khan replacing Azhar Ali at the helm after only winning five of their last 10 ODI series. Under Safraz’s guidance, Pakistan will look to play a more attacking brand of ODI cricket. The skipper will no doubt lean heavily on young batsman Babar Azam to lead the new mindset. 

At just 22, Babar has been one of the few young Pakistani batsmen who have been tried over this period and look capable of emulating former greats such as Younis, Misbah, Mohammed Yousuf and Inzamam-ul-Haq. Three consecutive ODI centuries last season, provided the evidence that Babar may be the future of Pakistan’s batting. 

Pakistan share further similarities with Sri Lanka due to their side also being guided by former Proteas coaching staff. With Donald and Graham Ford in the Sri Lankan camp, Mickey Arthur will be plotting the demise of his former team from the Pakistan dug out. It’s been a long time since Arthur wore the Proteas crest on his chest, and the team has moved on since, but he will no doubt be reminding his current charges of SA’s fallibility at major ICC tournaments. 

He will need to as this Pakistan side doesn’t boast a pace attack that the country were renowned for in the past. Mohammad Aamer has completed his transition back into international cricket after serving a ban for spot-fixing, but the leftarmer has not quite looked as potent as he was before. 

Equally, the support cast of Junaid Khan and Wahab Riaz are not consistently up to the mark. However, when has Pakistan cricket ever been known for their consistency, and are they not often at their mercurial best when nobody gives them any chance of succeeding?

X-FACTOR MAN: 

Wahab Riaz Age 31, Matches 78, Wickets 102, BB 5/46, Ave 33.49 

The quickest of the Pakistani bowlers, but also the most erratic with Wahab prone to delivering no-balls at crucial junctures. However, when Wahab does get it right – like he famously did in the 2015 World Cup quarter-final against Australia in Adelaide – the left-armer can be a real threat.

Champions Trophy history

1998 Quarter-finalists 

000 Semi-finalists 

2002 Knocked out in the group stage

2004 Semi-finalists 

2006 Knocked out in the group stage 

2009 Semi-finalists 

2013 Knocked out in the group stage

Squad:

Sarfraz Ahmed (c), Azhar Ali, Ahmed Shehzad, Mohammad Hafeez, Babar Azam, Shoaib Malik, Haris Sohail, Fakhar Zaman, Imad Wasim, Hasan Ali, Fahim Ashraf, Wahab Riaz, Mohammad Aamer, Junaid Khan, Shadab Khan

INDIA

SA will be hoping once they return to the nation’s capital after a brief visit to the Midlands that their passage to the next round is already secured - or at least close to - for the biggest test awaits in their final Group B match at The Oval. India are the defending champions and boast an enviable record in English conditions.

Long removed from being purely sub-continental bullies, India not only won the last Champions Trophy in the United Kingdom but have also been victorious in eight of their last nine contests in the country. 

Confidence streams through every aspect of Indian cricket, with a group of seasoned veterans ably supported by a crop of talented youngsters groomed in the high-octane environment of the IPL.The captain’s armband has switched over from the much-decorated MS Dhoni to his natural successor Virat Kohli.

However, this could be the one chink in the Indian armour, with the microscope set to be firmly on the uber aggressive Kohli after his Bangalore Royal Challengers flopped spectacularly in the recent IPL. 

There’s no way that it should go that pear-shaped though, especially with India boasting a meaty batting line-up that consists of Kohli, Dhoni, Rohit Sharma, Yuvraj Singh, Ajinkya Rahane and Shikhar Dhawan. Add in the star-studded spin duo of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, and suddenly the enormity of the challenge becomes clearer.

X-FACTOR MAN: 

Jasprit Bumrah Age 23, Matches 11, Wickets 22, BB 4/22, Ave: 21.68 

Not many teams that have Lasith Malinga in their ranks will opt to give the ball to a “youngster” to bowl a Super Over. But that’s just what the Mumbai Indians did in the recent IPL. 

Bumrah showed exactly why he was handed the responsibility with a masterclass, deceiving renowned sluggers like Brendon McCullum and Aaron Finch with an array of devilishly disguised slower balls and yorkers. If any of India’s matches go down to the wire, expect Bumrah to be at the heart of it all.

Champions Trophy history

1998 Semi-finalists 

2000 Runners-up 

2002 Joint-champions 

2004 Knocked out in the group stage 

2006 Knocked out in the group stage 

2009 Knocked out at group stage 

2013 Champions

Squad

Virat Kohli (c), MS Dhoni (wk), Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, Jasprit Bumrah, Kedar Jadhav, Dinesh Karthik (wk), Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Hardik Pandya, Ajinkya Rahane, Umesh Yadav, Yuvraj Singh

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