A year ago both teams were enduring far more failure than success and were regarded as teams in decline.
South Africa had plummeted from the number one position they had occupied at Test level for almost three years and, briefly, in all three formats of the game. Sri Lanka were languishing so far down the Test rankings they were likely to have started in the second division had the ICC been able to push ahead with its plans to split Test cricket into two groups.
Both teams, too, were struggling to escape the legacies of some of the greatest cricketers the game has ever known. The likes of Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Muttiah Muralitharan are likely never to be seen again, certainly statistically. There simply won’t be enough Test cricket played by future generations, and even if there is players are unlikely to carry on for al long as they did.
It was a sign of the difficulty the Proteas had to escape the shadows cast by Jacques Kallis, Graeme Smith and Mark Boucher that followers and supporters of the game were still talking about them two years after their retirements.
It is not merely the restructuring of the playing resources and reshaping of the XI to attain a new ‘balance’, it is the subtle, barely recognisable ways in which a team goes about their daily business and preparation which takes time to evolve. Initially, it feels disrespectful to change systems which suited great players for so long, especially a leader who captain for a decade, but sometimes that is exactly what is required.
Faf du Plessis spoke several times in Australia about the importance of this team “finding their own way” and “creating their own history”. Junior players are intimidated and inhibited by the mere presence and reputation of such greats, through no fault of their own or the legends they sit alongside. Even the players who shared space for a significant period of time with the senior players in a successful team require a year or two to adjust to the responsibility of taking over as the new leaders, on and off the field.
For Sri Lanka the outrageously talented 21-year-old batsman, Kushal Mendis, and the 27-year-old Dinesh Chandimal are two such players. The former may never have had the courage of his conditions to counter-attack the Australians as he did in the first of three Tests against Australia in August when he lashed a match and series defining 176 in the second innings to manufacture a victory when defeat had seemed inevitable after the home side were dismissed for just 117 in their first innings.
Chandimal started life as wicketkeeper and was shunted up and down the order filling – or attempting to fill – any role which suited the requirements of the team for a particular match. Now a specialist middle order batsman with the responsibility and expectation which Sangakkara and Jayawardene lived with for a decade, he is flourishing. The captain, Angelo Matthews, initially reluctant to take over with the two greats and former captains still in the XI, is a popular and charismatic captain with his own style of leadership.
South Africa have Kagiso Rabada, Quinton de Kock and Temba Bavuma at the forefront of a new generation with the slightly older but no more experienced Kyle Abbott also set to flourish. Keshav Maharaj and Tabraiz Shamsi offer an exciting new look to the spin department and there is much else to be excited about.
Whereas once there may have a been a ‘ho-hum’ lack of interest in this series, there is now a genuine fascination, and from beyond these shores, too. Remember, there are very few team records yet to be broken in the game. Sri Lanka have never won a series in South Africa – that is one of them. They have been preparing like never before. They want it very badly and, with Graham Ford as their coach, they believe they have a genuine chance. The Proteas should win in conditions which, as always, will play a huge role. But a couple of slip-ups here and there, and another record could disappear from the tiny list of those yet to be broke,
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