Backbenchers hope to kickstart World Cup preparation

Sri Lanka coach Chandika Hathurusingha speaks to Angelo Mathews during a training session
Sri Lanka v South Africa, 1st ODI, Dambulla July 28, 2018

Big Picture

The last time these two sides met in bilateral ODIs, South Africa stomped to a 5-0 victory. Sri Lanka were at the start of their shambolic 2017, and South Africa still had AB de Villiers, while Imran Tahir only needed to stare at a Sri Lanka batsman in order to get his wicket.

Things are a little different now - mainly for South Africa. They are without de Villiers, who is retired, and are missing Tahir on this trip - the selectors having chosen to give him a break. The core of their batting group has also twice failed against spin over the last few months. Once, in the just-concluded Tests, where Sri Lanka's spinners uprooted them for embarrassing totals on three different occasions. And also a few months ago, when India's wristspinners Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal shared 33 wickets between them in an ODI series that South Africa lost 5-1.

Sri Lanka, meanwhile, are yet to convince anyone that they are a capable ODI side. They won a tri-series featuring Bangladesh and Zimbabwe in January, but were unconvincing in that campaign, and have not played ODIs since. There is also substantial flux in their side, because almost no one contributes consistently, series after series. The trend has been for players to burn hot for a few games, before fading dramatically away. The uncertainty over what the best XI might be is not helped by the suspensions - Dinesh Chandimal and Danushka Gunathilaka are effectively ruled out of the series.

If you were to pick favourites for next year's World Cup, these two teams are unlikely to feature. Others, such as India and England, have already started fine-tuning. Pakistan are running hot. Both South Africa and Sri Lanka, however, have serious catching up to do if they are to launch formidable campaigns in England next year. This series kicks off their World Cup preparation, in earnest; it is a chance for two meandering teams to strap in, and start building some form.

Form guide

Sri Lanka WWWLL (completed matches, most recent first)

South Africa LLWLL

In the spotlight

For so long the most frustrating cricketer in Sri Lanka (and this is a crowded field), coaches say Thisara Perera is now a brand-new, self-motivated man. His performances have been better in the last 10 months than in the previous few years, with his batting in particular coming good. That the think tank persisted with him through all those lean series is because Sri Lanka's selectors know a seam-bowling, big-hitting allrounder will be invaluable in England next year. Given his recent form, big performances are now expected from Thisara.

Although he never got past 50, Faf du Plessis appeared the most capable South Africa batsman against spin for the first three innings of the Test series. Despite having missed most of the ODIs against India at home, he had also hit 120 off 112 balls in the only match he played. South Africa's batting coach has hinted that his team would use this series to trial new players, with the likes of Willem Mulder, Heinrich Klaasen and Reeza Hendricks among those who may get an opportunity. But while that experimenting goes on, South Africa will depend on runs from the senior men - du Plessis and Hashim Amla in particular, who have been part of an ODI series victory in Sri Lanka before.

Team news

Heinrich Klaasen picked up a groin strain and sat out the tour match, but is expected to be fit for the first ODI. He may be overlooked in favour of Mulder, however, who was good with bat and ball in the practice game. South Africa may opt for two spinners in Dambulla, in which case Keshav Maharaj and Tabraiz Shamsi may both play.

South Africa (possible): 1 Quinton de Kock (wk), 2 Hashim Amla, 3 Faf du Plessis (capt.), 4 Aiden Markram, 5 JP Duminy, 6 David Miller, 7 Willem Mulder, 8 Keshav Maharaj, 9 Andile Phehlukwayo, 10 Kagiso Rabada, 11 Tabraiz Shamsi

Sri Lanka's XI is difficult to predict, given the flux. Kusal Perera, Kusal Mendis, Upul Tharanga and Niroshan Dickwella are likely to form the four, although it is hard to say in which order. If they go with double-spin, Akila Dananjaya and Lakshan Sandakan are the likeliest to play. Kasun Rajitha may also be in the mix for an ODI debut.

Sri Lanka (possible): 1 Kusal Perera, 2 Niroshan Dickwella (wk), 3 Upul Tharanga, 4 Kusal Mendis, 5 Angelo Mathews (capt.), 6 Dasun Shanaka, 7 Thisara Perera, 8 Akila Dananjaya, 9 Suranga Lakmal, 10 Lakshan Sandakan, 11 Kasun Rajitha

Pitch and conditions

The tracks in Dambulla have seemingly become more batting friendly over the last couple of years. Chasing teams also appear to have done well, though the sample size is too small for this to be called a trend. There is no rain forecast.

Stats and trivia

  • In four ODI innings during that January tri-series in Bangladesh, Thisara struck 134 runs at a strike rate of 154, and an average of 44.66.

  • Of all the places Hashim Amla has batted, it is in Sri Lanka that he has the best average of 70.60, with two centuries to his name.

  • South Africa have won nine of the last 10 ODIs between these sides, having beaten Sri Lanka in the Champions Trophy last year, and having won the 2014 bilateral series in Sri Lanka 2-1.


"We'll trial a few combinations which we think will be suitable for the World Cup, but it's a process. It depends on the conditions also and you have to keep winning as well."
Sri Lanka captain Angelo Mathews

"I'd look at the next year leading up to the World Cup as how we can give guys opportunities, who we think will be in that 15-man squad, and as well as equipping them with the skillsets required to win the trophy in England."
South Africa captain Faf du Plessis feels blooding players is more important than winning every match over the next year

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