Sri Lanka need a Christmas miracle
December 26-30, Durban
Start time 10:00 (08:00GMT)
The Big Picture
For a team that has almost always been near the summit of the Test rankings, South Africa's recent home record is surprisingly ordinary - no series wins in more than three years. Their performances at Kingsmead in that period are similarly bleak - losing to each of the other major contenders for the title of world's best Test team. Graeme Smith and his side get the chance to erase both those blots this week as they take on a disjointed Sri Lanka.
After subsiding for below 200 in both innings of the first Test, the Sri Lanka batsmen won't be overly thrilled at the sight of a green-tinged track. In a bid to bolster the batting, Sri Lanka are mulling bringing in highly rated wicketkeeper-batsman Dinesh Chandimal in place of Kaushal Silva, who hasn't had the best of times in his three matches as replacement for regular gloveman Prasanna Jayawardene.
The number that is becoming synonymous with discussions about the decline of Sri Lankan cricket is the number of Tests they have gone without a victory since the retirement of their greatest player, Muttiah Muralitharan, last year. That now stands at 15, but almost as worrying is that in only two of those matches have Sri Lanka managed to bowl out the opposition twice.
Adding to the troubles on the field, are the many problems off it. A bankrupt board which is struggling to pay player salaries, and has indefinitely postponed its domestic matches. To top it off was the confusion in communication - their captain Tillakaratne Dilshan's announcement that fast bowler Nuwan Kulasekara will join the squad was over-ruled a few days later by the sports ministry. All of which means Sri Lanka will need a Christmas miracle to pull off a victory in Durban.
Form guide(Most recent first)
South Africa WLWDL
Sri Lanka LDLDD
Watch out for...Thilan Samaraweera boasts a career average of 52.20 after playing as many as 69 Tests. But he doesn't get the respect that others with similar figures do because of his average record overseas, particularly against top teams like England, Australia and India. A big contribution on a tough Kingsmead track against a world-class South Africa attack will be a fitting riposte to his detractors.
Jacques Rudolph revived a seemingly dead South Africa career with a wagon-load of domestic runs this year, but he hasn't been able to carry that form to the Test level. With no half-century in three Tests, the selectors could be tempted to bring back Alviro Petersen if there are more failures. Petersen himself was axed after a relatively short fallow period, and his recall to the squad for the series sends a message to Rudolph.
South Africa will be waiting on Vernon Philander's fitness after he injured his knee during training, but it seems likely he will play. If he doesn't, Lonwabo Tsotsobe is the likely replacement, provided he has recovered fully from a side strain which has sidelined him since early November. If not, South Africa will have to call on a reserve - Marchant de Lange could make his debut. Smith has said that "ideally the team will stay the same."
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
Dilshan has hinted that Chandimal will play in place of Kaushal Silva and it's expected that Thisara Perera will sit out for Dhammika Prasad.
Sri Lanka: (probable) 1 Tillakaratne Dilshan (capt), 2 Tharanga Paranavitana, 3 Kumar Sangakkara, 4 Mahela Jayawardene, 5 Thilan Samaraweera, 6 Angelo Mathews, 7 Dinesh Chandimal (wk), 8 Rangana Herath, 9 Dhammika Prasad, 10 Dilhara Fernando, 11 Chanaka Welegedara
Pitch and conditionsDurban has usually been a fast bowler's delight, and it is expected to have plenty of swing this time round as well, so don't count on a high-scoring draw. The bowlers will relish the green pitch and overcast conditions and the only downer is the mid-week rain that is predicted.
Stats and trivia
- Sri Lanka are the only team against which Jacques Kallis hasn't scored a Test century
- If Chandimal is picked, he will be Sri Lanka's eighth Test debutant this year, the most since 1999
- In Tests between the two countries, Muttiah Muralitharan has 104 wickets - that's more than twice the next highest, Shaun Pollock with 48
For a full stats analysis, click here.
"The wicket looks like it should go more than three days, unless one team puts up their hand and plays unbelievable cricket. It will be a good Test wicket with something for both bat and ball and something to play for over five days for a change."
AB de Villiers hopes for a Test match that lasts the distance
"I remember facing Mfuneko Ngam, who was the quickest bowler I had faced. It was a Test match that we fought hard to draw."
Kumar Sangakkara recalls the 2000 Durban Test, the only one Sri Lanka have not lost in South Africa
Siddarth Ravindran is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo