JOHANNESBURG - While Mickey Arthur wouldn’t bite at the suggestion his Sri Lankan team could be favourites for the two-match Test series against the Proteas, the tourists do appear to be the more stable of the two sides.
Sure they are missing Angelo Mathews, their resourceful allrounder, but they didn’t need him last year, when they won the Test series in South Africa. They are also unlikely to have conditions be quite as familiar to their players as was the case in Durban and Port Elizabeth, where the bounce and pace was slightly lower and slower than it will be at the two Highveld venues hosting this summer’s series.
The absence of Oshada Fernando for the first Test is a blow, but not one they were unprepared for, given he arrived in SA with an injured ankle. Dinesh Chandimal, who did not feature in the starting XI in last year’s historic triumph, may be given the opportunity to return to the middle order.
That leaves Arthur and the selectors to ponder over picking five bowlers - which in that case would likely mean a start for all-rounder Dasun Shanaka - or six batsmen, plus the explosive wicket-keeper Niroshan Dickwella and rely on four bowlers. Either way, and difficult as those decisions may be, they are not as hard as the problems facing the hosts.
The South Africans are likely to have just five names they can stencil in; Quinton de Kock, obviously as the captain, opener Dean Elgar, Faf du Plessis, Rassie van der Dussen and Anrich Nortje. Picking the remainder will involve using a combination of domestic form and whatever the players can produce at training this week to impress the coaches.
It wouldn’t have helped Mark Boucher and his assistant Enoch Nkwe, that yesterday’s training sessions got hindered by rain. Decisions about who will partner Elgar at the top of the order, who will bat at No 3, 5 and 6 need to be made. Who will bowl alongside Nortje? Keshav Maharaj is likely to start, but conditions are expected to favour fast bowlers, so how much bowling will he do? Two out of Lungi Ngidi, Glenton Stuurman and Migael Pretorius will complete the line-up.
There are concerns over Ngidi’s ability to last five days, while the latter two have yet to play Test cricket.
It may seem good to have that many options, but it also indicates just how problematic the transition of SA’s Test team has been in the last couple of years.
Since Sri Lanka’s previous visit, in February last year, SA have handed 10 players debuts across nine matches.
That’s a high turnover. Injuries have only played a small part, but loss of form, not finding the right combinations and not making the right selections have all played a part.
The Proteas Test team is crying out for some stability, but whether it will get that in the next couple of years is anyone’s guess.
Top of the list of issues is finding a long-term captain.
By his own admission, De Kock is not that person. The number of Tests the team is likely to play in the next two-and-a-half years will be minimal, given the emphasis on the limited-overs formats which have three World Cup tournaments scheduled.
De Kock has called for players to put their hands up against Sri Lanka. For one, gaining some measure of revenge for last year’s defeat will serve as the main source of motivation, but even with a lighter Test schedule, there is - Covid-19 restrictions permitting - an Australian series on the horizon, and matches against them always pique the public’s interest.