The action shifts to the Test firmament from a long vacuum of dried up international fare for the Sri Lankans by the raging COVID-19 pandemic as Dimuth Karunaratne’s men flex their muscles in a high buoyance for tomorrow’s Boxing Day first Test match versus a rather new look South African outfit at Centurion Park. That charged up mood in the Lankan camp is derived by the historic 2-nil drubbing Karunaratne’s men handed out to the Proteas in their own backyard when the two nations last met in December 2019- January ‘20.
Indeed, the 32-year old Karunaratne will carry that high buoyance streak in the final countdown when the two sides draw the battle lines backed by his stealthy trade mark cool and calculated daring dash accentuated by a lucky captain element heightened by the left hander’s stealthy, specialist opening batsman role upfront. That it will be on a Centurion batting oriented turf of which the Lankan skipper has in the pre-match press confab pepped up his batting juggernaut to be keyed up to, will be the center piece to the unfolding contest where the predictable willow works are expected to dictate the fortunes of the opening test. No doubt, Karunaratne will be looking to a tight reigning upfront role with the bat which the 9-century strong experience the Lankan skipper will look to maximise to put his side on top in a contest which according to reports flitting in Sri Lanka is expected to cap a few promising new players. The sword edged upswing the Sri Lankans will carry is that there quite a number of tried and tested players who starred in bringing down the South Africans when they last met. That the Karunaratne influence in that landmark feat was a double icing on the cake in terms of self and country in a truly remarkable Cinderella fairytale type of emergence from the unknown to anointing his name as a highly potential captain in a feat that many of his predecessors had failed in Protea land is tall stuff. In that turn around, it is significant that Dimuth Karunaratne achieved the near impossible catapulted having been handed the high profile job in a shaky period that Sri Lanka had not won a single match in over two months. His stocks further rose when he was appointed the ODI captain as well ahead of the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup.
That apart, the Sri Lankans possess in their ranks a world record breaking batsman in a fourth innings chase in Kusal Janith Perera who did just that versus the South Africans in the first testwith an all-time great match winning unbeaten 153 in a last ditch stand. Significantly, the 22-member Lankan squad basking of dashing batsman Kusal Mendis and the recalled inform Dinesh Chandimal is a mixture of experience and new talent. While there are several players from the successful squad that toured last time, the uncapped are Wanindu Hasaranga, Minod Bhanuka, Asistha Fernando, Santhush Gunathilake and Dilshan Madushanka.
The Karunaratne element to the Lankan team is derived from a sound past of having become Sri Lanka’s leading Test batsman since 2015 by his century making in the second innings of a Test match. Four of his centuries in the second innings were out of six centuries he made until October 2017. On 7 October 2017, Karunaratne became the second Sri Lankan opener after Tillakaratne Dilshan to score three Test centuries in a calendar year.
Overall, it is a confidence high Lankan outfit that has touched down in South African shores questing for a repeat performance against a home team that had some early COVID-19 related player worries. What is more, South Africa will be going into a series with new trappings from the last series with a new captain in de Kock who has replaced Faf du Plessis when the two sides last met, while out of the equation from the 2019 squad are star batsman Hashim Amla, Kagisso Rabada through injury and Dale Steyn.
For the record, Sri Lanka defeated South Africa in the 1st Test by 1-wicket at Durban chasing down 304 on the final day with Kusal Janith Perera doing the impossible in the breathtaking drama of a 200-ball 153 in 309 minutes powered by 12 boundaries and 5 sixes. That the final assault was mounted in the make or break death stages yielding a record 78 runs for the last wicket with Vishwa Fernando whose contribution was 6 off 27 balls consuming 73 minutes was the high point of it. South Africa, batting first made 235 and 259 and Sri Lanka 191 and 304 for 9. Another feature of that win was Perera top scoring in the first innings as well with 51 off 63 (7×4, 1×6). Skipper Karunaratne’s 30 off 59 (3×4) was the next best. Sri Lanka went on to win the second test by 8 wickets chasing down 197 at Port Elizabeth with Kusal Mendis the Player of the Match with an unbeaten 84 off 110 (13×4) and one drop batsman Oshada Fernando undefeated on 75 off 106 (10×4, 2×6) in a total of 197 for 2. South Africa made 222 and 128 with Suranga Lakmal claiming 4 for 39, Dhananjaya de Silva 3 for 36 and Kasun Rajitha 2 for 20. Sri Lanka made 154 in the first innings with Niroshan Dickwella top scoring with 42. Karunaratne’s contributions of 17 and 19 and 30 and 20 in the series, though not high stuff, measured in terms of holding the batting together.
SRI LANKA SQUAD:
Dimuth Karunaratne (Capt.), Minod Bhanuka, Lahiru Thirimanne, Kusal Perera, Dinesh Chandimal, Kusal Mendis, Angelo Mathews, Oshada Fernando, Dhananjaya De Silva, Niroshan Dickwella, Lasith Embuldeniya, Wanindu Hasaranga, Dilruwan Perera, Suranga Lakmal, Lahiru Kumara, Vishwa Fernando, Kasun Rajitha, Asitha Fernando, Dilshan Madushanka, Dushmantha Chameera, Dasun Shanaka, Santhush Gunathilake.
SOUTH AFRICA SQUAD:
Quinton de Kock (Capt.), Temba Bavuma, Aiden Markram, Faf du Plessis, Beuran Hendricks, Dean Elgar, Keshav Maharaj, Lungi Ngidi, Rassie van der Dussen, Sarel Erwee, Anrich Nortje, Glenton Stuurman, Wiaan Mulder, Keegan Petersen, Kyle Verreynne, Migael Pretorius, Dwaine Pretorius, Lutho Sipamla, Raynard van Tonder. Some conspicuous absentees from last times South African squad are star opening batsman Hashim Amla and tearaway fast bowler Kagiso Rabada.