South Africa v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Centurion December 14, 2011

Odds heavily stacked against Sri Lanka

Madhusudhan Ramakrishnan
In bowler-friendly conditions, Sri Lanka have their task cut out against a strong South African team keen to win their first home series in three years

In seven years between 1997 and 2004, Sri Lanka and South Africa played each other in five series. But since then, the teams have met just once, in Sri Lanka, and it has almost been nine years since they played a Test in South Africa. Over the years, both teams have been vulnerable when touring the other country: Sri Lanka have poorly on pace-friendly pitches outside the subcontinent, and South Africa struggling on tracks conducive to spin.

South Africa, who have historically done well in spin-friendly conditions in India, were comprehensively beaten on their two previous tours of Sri Lanka and failed to win a single Test. On the other hand, Sri Lanka have lost six out of seven Tests in South Africa. More recently, even their home stats have suffered, with a draw against a weak West Indies team and a defeat against Australia. Overseas, they're still waiting for their first Test win in three countries - Australia, South Africa and India.

Despite possessing a strong outfit, South Africa, surprisingly, have been unable to close out Test series at home in the last few years. They have lost one and drawn three of their last four home series against England, India and Australia. However, they will feel that they can regain their winning ways in this series.

South Africa have won six of the seven Tests against Sri Lanka at home. The extent of their domination in these contests is reflected in the difference between the batting and bowling averages. South Africa's batting average of 36.92 seems even higher than it is when compared to Sri Lanka's 21.60. On the spin-friendly tracks of Sri Lanka, though, South Africa have a 2-4 win-loss record, and the batting and bowling averages are obviously in Sri Lanka's favour. Overall, South Africa are slightly ahead with an average difference of 2.74.

South Africa's record against Sri Lanka in Tests
Played Won Lost Drawn W/L ratio Bat avg Bowl avg Avg diff
Matches in South Africa 7 6 0 1 - 36.92 21.60 15.32
Matches in Sri Lanka 10 2 4 4 0.50 30.17 37.50 -7.33
Overall 17 8 4 5 2.00 32.57 29.83 2.74

Sri Lanka's win-loss ratio in home Tests since 1990 is an excellent 2.15 and their dominance at home is reflected in the high value of the average difference (10.42). Although their overall away performance itself is poor (win-loss ratio of 0.47), their display in Tests outside the subcontinent is worse. Apart from the odd innings like Sanath Jayasuriya's 213 at The Oval in 1998 and Kumar Sangakkara's outstanding 192 in Hobart in 2007, there have not been too many notable performances.

In England, Sri Lanka have been competitive, winning two Tests. However, Muralitharan's bowling played a huge part in both wins and his absence was felt seriously on their latest tour of England, when they struggled to check the flow of runs. While the average difference of -12.55 in Tests in England is poor, it's better than the performances in South Africa (-15.32) and Australia (-30.62). Their bowling averages in these countries indicate that their attack has been largely toothless in these conditions.

Sri Lanka's contrasting home and away records (in England, South Africa and Australia) since 1990
  Played Won Lost Drawn W/L ratio Bat avg Bowl avg Avg diff
Home 92 41 19 32 2.15 39.37 28.95 10.42
Away (overall) 86 18 38 30 0.47 30.61 38.09 -7.48
In England 11 2 5 4 0.40 32.54 45.09 -12.55
In South Africa 7 0 6 1 0.00 21.60 36.92 -15.32
In Australia 7 0 6 1 0.00 27.20 57.82 -30.62

South Africa are playing at home, but of late they haven't been that good at utilizing that advantage. Since the 2-1 series win against West Indies in 2007-08, they've only beaten New Zealand and Bangladesh at home. In 2008-09, England drew the series 1-1 after holding on to draws in two matches with one wicket remaining. This series was followed by a 2-1 loss to Australia and 1-1 draws against India and Australia in the last two series. In the meanwhile, they have done much better away, winning in West Indies and drawing 1-1 in India.

Sri Lanka's fortunes have gone downhill since the retirement of Muralitharan in August 2010. Their strong home record was blighted recently by Australia, who secured a 1-0 series win and dominated the contests. In away Tests, the results have been familiar. After two heavy defeats in India, Sri Lanka lost the first Test against England after an astonishing collapse in their second innings in Cardiff. Even in the recent Test series against Pakistan, Sri Lanka were far from inspiring and went down 1-0. Sri Lanka's overseas bowling stats are particularly disappointing - they average 61 runs per wicket since 2009.

Recent Test form of both teams (since 2009) excluding Bangladesh and Zimbabwe matches
Team Venue Played Wins/Losses Bat avg Bowl avg Avg diff 100/50 5WI/10WM
South Africa Home 12 4/5 35.84 30.78 5.06 17/25 9/0
Sri Lanka Home 14 5/2 41.17 34.47 6.70 15/36 10/0
South Africa Away 8 3/2 46.34 38.00 8.34 13/18 3/1
Sri Lanka Away 11 0/4 38.90 61.08 -22.18 16/21 2/0

Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene have been the two outstanding batsmen for Sri Lanka over the last decade, but their stats outside the subcontinent present quite a contrast. The pair put on a record 624 against South Africa at the SSC in 2006, and Jayawardene has scored five Test hundreds against them, but he has failed to impress in South Africa. While he averages 105.27 in seven Tests in Sri Lanka (against South Africa), his average drops to just 31.40 in matches played in South Africa. In Tests played outside the subcontinent since 2006, Jayawardene has struggled, averaging just over 31 in 12 matches. Sangakkara has done much better scoring four centuries at an average of 51.35. Both batsmen have a fairly similar percentage distribution of dismissals against pace and spin but Sangakkara has a much higher value of balls-per-dismissal against the fast bowlers. Tillekaratne Dilshan and Thilan Samaraweera, two of the more experienced Sri Lankan batsmen, have also done much better against spinners but have found the going a lot tougher against pace.

Sri Lanka's batsmen outside the subcontinent since 2006
Batsman Matches Runs Average 100/50 % dismissals, balls/dismissal (pace) % dismissals, balls/dismissal (spin)
Kumar Sangakkara 11 1027 51.35 4/4 85.00, 85.82 15.00, 134.33
Mahela Jayawardene 12 746 31.08 3/1 87.50, 56.00 12.50, 117.66
Tillekaratne Dilshan 7 559 43.00 1/4 84.61, 60.00 7.69, 204.00
Thilan Samaraweera 8 439 33.76 1/3 76.92, 60.10 15.38, 117.00

For South Africa too, lack of batting consistency has been a worry at home. The opening pair looks far from settled, though Jacques Rudolph deserves a longer run to prove his class. The middle order, although solid on paper, has been shown to be vulnerable especially because of the repeated failures of Ashwell Prince and Mark Boucher. Jacques Kallis, who recently went past Brian Lara's Test aggregate, has by far been South Africa's finest batsman at home. He has scored six centuries in hist last 12 Tests at home, including a hundred in both innings against India in Cape Town. His record against pace bowlers is excellent with a balls-per-dismissal figure of 101.50 but this is completely overshadowed by his stunning performance against spin. Kallis has been dismissed only once by spinners in the last three years while facing 617 deliveries.

AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla and Graeme Smith complete a powerful top-order line-up and have a strong record in recent years. However, both of them, plus Prince and Boucher, have fallen to spinners fairly often, which is an aspect that should encourage Ajantha Mendis and Rangana Herath.

South Africa's batsmen at home since 2009 (excluding Bangladesh and Zimbabwe matches)
Batsman Matches Runs Average 100/50 % dismissals, balls/dismissal (pace) % dismissals, balls/dismissal (spin)
Jacques Kallis 12 1208 67.11 6/3 88.88, 101.50 5.55, 617.00
AB de Villiers 12 979 51.52 3/6 78.94, 77.20 21.05, 127.50
Hashim Amla 12 947 45.09 4/4 80.95, 84.41 19.04, 88.25
Graeme Smith 11 826 48.58 3/3 70.58, 90.41 23.52, 70.25
Mark Boucher 12 495 29.11 0/4 58.82, 63.20 41.17, 38.14
Ashwell Prince 10 420 30.00 1/1 64.28, 80.33 28.57, 37.00

Dale Steyn was playing only his seventh Test when Sri Lanka amassed 756 for 5 at the SSC. In South African conditions, though, it's unlikely that Steyn and Co will need to toil so hard for wickets. He missed out on becoming the fastest bowler to reach the 250-wicket mark after a below-par second-innings display against Australia in Johannesburg. However, in the company of Vernon Philander, who picked up 14 wickets in his first two Tests, and Morne Morkel, Steyn will be more than a handful for the Sri Lankan batsmen. The presence of Imran Tahir also provides the necessary variety in an otherwise pace-dominant attack.

Sri Lanka, on the other hand, have very little experience to fall back on. Dilhara Fernando, who picked up six wickets in the close three-wicket loss in Centurion on the previous visit in 2002-03, has hardly been impressive in recent years, averaging 51.00 since 2007. However, considering that many South African batsmen do not have a great record against spin, Sri Lanka will bank heavily on their slow bowlers to create an impression.

Centurion, the venue for the first Test, has generally been a result-oriented track with just one draw in the last six matches. The only team to win a match in Centurion after batting first in the last five years is South Africa, who beat New Zealand by 128 runs in April 2006. The first-innings average in Centurion is the lowest among the three venues for the Test series. Unlike Durban and Cape Town, where there has been some success for spinners, Centurion has mostly been a venue that has favoured pace bowlers (151 wickets at 30.60). Overcast conditions and a green pitch will make the task that much tougher for Sri Lanka.

Venue stats for the series (matches since 2006)
Venue Wins/Losses/draws (South Africa) Wins (batting first) 1st inns 2nd inns 3rd inns 4th inns Wickets, avg (pace) Wickets, avg (spin)
Centurion 5/0/1 1 26.79 46.88 29.07 24.86 151, 30.60 34, 41.20
Durban 2/4/0 4 28.93 36.65 34.36 27.20 150, 31.24 44, 30.18
Cape Town 5/1/3 0 31.34 34.23 27.40 45.03 214, 30.35 64, 39.04