South Africa must make home advantage count
December 15-19, Centurion
Start time 1030 (0830GMT)
The Big Picture
When discussion turns to contenders for the top spot in Test cricket, South Africa feature prominently in the debate. Yet they haven't won a home Test series since 2008 - and that was against Bangladesh - having watched leads evaporate against Australia recently and India last year. If they have serious aspirations to return to the top of the table they need to win this series against Sri Lanka.
Everything suggests that should be well within their grasp. Sri Lanka have had a poor 2011 since reaching the World Cup final and have suffered three consecutive series defeats; against England, Australia and Pakistan. Although each was only a 1-0 margin there was a clear gap between them and their opposition. It's a void that they'll struggle to narrow against South Africa.
There was always going to be a tough period in Sri Lanka's history when Muttiah Muralitharan (not to mention Chaminda Vaas) departed the scene and the bowling attack is thin. However, in many ways the bigger concern is the form of the top order. With the honourable exception of Kumar Sangakkara the big names have failed to fire consistently. More is needed from Tillakaratne Dilshan, Mahela Jayawardene and Thilan Samaraweera.
It will be a severe challenge for them against Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander, who made an impressive start to his Test career against Australia. They will be looking forward to the prospect of testing out the Sri Lankan batsmen on a bouncy, green Centurion pitch.
South Africa, though, have to take this series by the scruff of the neck if their reputation isn't to suffer. They have not always coped well when expectations have been high.
Form guide(Most recent first)
South Africa LWDLW
Sri Lanka DLDDD
Watch out for...
Dale Steyn is the attack leader and Vernon Philander the new kid on the block, but don't forget about Morne Morkel. He has moved to first change rather than being Steyn's new-ball partner so when the Sri Lanka openers take strike they'll have that nagging thought that Morkel's steepling bounce is still awaiting them. Morkel's Test record - 121 wickets at a touch under 30 - is impressive but there is a feeling it could be even better. Against a visiting team unsure of conditions, this is a chance for Morkel to make a mark.
Tillakaratne Dilshan has been up and down the batting order this year as Sri Lanka try to find a combination that works. Against England, at Lord's, he hit a fabulous 193 as opener but then moved down to No. 5 when Australia visited before returning to the top for the final Test against Pakistan where he hit 92. Like with Virender Sehwag there will be times when Dilshan produces something fairly unflattering against the new ball but he also has the ability to set a tone and lead from the front. He won't back down against South Africa's quicks and that should make fascinating viewing.
South Africa are expected to stick with the side that faced Australia which means no recall for Alvrio Petersen but Jacques Rudolph is on notice that he needs to convert his starts at the top of the order. However, perhaps most under pressure is Mark Boucher who needs a strong series to convince people that his career isn't on the wane.
South Africa (probable) 1 Graeme Smith (capt), 2 Jacques Rudolph, 3 Hashim Amla, 4 Jacques Kallis, 5 AB de Villiers, 6 Ashwell Prince, 7 Mark Boucher (wk), 8 Vernon Philander, 9 Dale Steyn, 10 Morne Morkel, 11 Imran Tahir
Sri Lanka named a 12-man squad on the eve of the Test which included both spinners - Ajantha Mendis and Rangana Herath - but with conditions likely to favour the seamers it would be a gamble to have just two frontline pacemen. Their options are limited, however, with Nuwan Pradeep having flown home injured. Sangakkara, who split the webbing on his right hand in the warm-up match, will have a final fitness test but the signs were promising.
Sri Lanka (probable) 1 Tillakaratne Dilshan (capt), 2 Tharanga Paranavitana, 3 Kumar Sangakkara, 4 Mahela Jayawardene, 5 Thilan Samaraweera, 6 Angelo Mathews, 7 Kaushal Silva (wk), 8 Thisara Perera, 9 Rangana Herath, 10 Dilhara Fernando, 11 Chanaka Welegedara
Pitch and conditions
The pitch was as green as Pakistan's kit the day before the match so the pace bowlers on both sides will be licking their lips. The weather was overcast for training, with similar conditions expected through the game but no major rain forecast. However, there may be some afternoon thunderstorms as is common on the Highveld.
Stats and trivia
- Sri Lanka have played seven Tests in South Africa and only avoided defeat once with a draw in Durban in 2000 when rain washed out the fourth day.
- However, four Sri Lankan players from that Kingsmead Test are due to play in Centurion; Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Dilhara Fernando - who took 5 for 98
- South Africa have won 12 of their 16 Tests in Centurion, the only defeat coming in the rain-affected 2000 match against England when Hansie Cronje set up the final-day run chase.
"Whenever there's a subcontinent team, it's always the talk. That's the reality that Sri Lanka face, that our pace bowlers are in their own conditions and want to exploit that."
Graeme Smith suggests the visitors will face barrage.
"If we can play our brand of cricket, we can beat any team in any conditions."
However, Tillakaratne Dilshan was also bullish
Andrew McGlashan is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo