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Sri Lanka depleted by Chandimal absence in opening Test

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Will Steyn finally become South Africa's leading Test wicket-taker? (1:11)

Over 1000 days since getting to 400 wickets, persistent injuries have meant Steyn still trails Shaun Pollock's 421 (1:11)

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At first glance, perhaps this is not the most enticing of match-ups. At first glance at recent history, it definitely isn't.

The last time South Africa played Sri Lanka - in the summer of 2016-17 in South Africa - they beat the visitors 3-0 on pitches that seamed and spat and rendered Sri Lanka's batsmen no more than mannequins. But the last time South Africa played in Sri Lanka, two enthralling Tests saw them win a series on the island for only the second time, and the first time in 21 years. In Galle, South Africa used reverse-swing to beat Sri Lanka at their own fortress and in Colombo batted out a draw, to begin with success a short Hashim Amla stint as captain.

Much has changed for South Africa since then, not least that the captaincy moved from Amla to the now-retired AB de Villiers to Faf du Plessis. Sri Lanka's leadership has also changed - from Angelo Matthews to Dinesh Chandimal - and will be forced to change again, as Chandimal has accepted a suspension of at least two Tests (putting him out of the series) due to a code-of-conduct violation.

More's the pity if that misses out, not only because Sri Lanka would have loved to have him against a strong South African attack, but also because both he and du Plessis have ball-tampering history.

The focus will now be on much less murky matters and the actual cricket should take centrestage. South Africa's batsmen will be scrutinised against spin, especially after their 2015 tour to India and more especially since de Villiers' retirement; Sri Lanka's will be watched against pace, even though there is not expected to be much of it in these conditions. At first glance, it's not a contest for the ages but look a little deeper, and it might be.

Form guide

(last five completed matches, most recent first)
Sri Lanka: WDLWD
South Africa: WWWLL

In the spotlight

With 27 Tests and three daddy-hundreds (176 against Australia, 194 and 196 against Bangladesh) to his name, Kusal Mendis has emerged as one of Sri Lanka's most accomplished young batsmen, and will want to stand up to a much-vaunted South African attack. Kusal was Sri Lanka's top-scorer on their tour of the West Indies, three runs behind the overall leader Shane Dowrich, and his 285 runs included a century and a half-century. He will hope to carry that form into the South Africa series.

All eyes will be on Dale Steyn, who is expected to make his return after more than seven months on the sidelines with a heel injury. Steyn made a successful return to fitness for Hampshire, and though he was "rusty" on return to the national camp, Ottis Gibson is clearly excited to have him as part of the artillery. As long as Steyn can stay on the park, he is all but guaranteed a place in the starting XI, which means he could finally complete his long quest to break the South African wicket-takers' record. But, of course, that's not all he is after. Steyn would like to play at least another full season and will want to show he still has plenty to offer.

Team news

South Africa are likely to go for a seven-batsmen, three-seamer and one spinner combination which will see Temba Bavuma slot in at No.4, replacing de Villiers, and Theunis de Bruyn at No.6. Lungi Ngidi will miss out for now.

South Africa: 1 Dean Elgar, 2 Aiden Markram, 3 Hashim Amla, 4 Temba Bavuma, 5 Faf du Plessis (capt), 6 Theunis de Bruyn, 7 Quinton de Kock (wk), 8 Vernon Philander, 9 Keshav Maharaj, 10 Kagiso Rabada, 11 Dale Steyn

Rangana Herath has recovered from a split webbing in his hand and should take his place in the XI, and Sri Lanka will need to decide which of Dilruwan Perera, Akila Dananjaya or Lakshan Sandakan will partner him. Suranga Lakmal is likely to captain in Chandimal's absence.

Sri Lanka: 1 Dimuth Karunaratne, 2 Danushka Gunathilaka, 3 Dhananjaya de Silva, 4 Kusal Mendis, 5 Angelo Mathews, 6 Roshen Silva, 7 Niroshan Dickwella (wk), 8 Rangana Herath, 9 Suranga Lakmal (capt), 10 Akila Dananjaya, 11 Lahiru Kumara

Pitch and conditions

Sprinklings of rain have been around in the build-up to the match, for a few hours each day for the last week, which could mean an interrupted Test on a pitch that has not dried out as much as the groundstaff would have hoped. For the hosts, that means they will have to wait for enough sunshine to dry the surface out before it will offer the turn they want. South Africa will welcome that news, and will hope their quicks can be more effective early on. Temperatures will nudge towards 30 degrees Celsius with humidity of around 90% on each of the five days.

Stats and trivia

  • Dale Steyn needs three wickets to overtake Shaun Pollock and become South Africa's leading Test wicket-taker.

  • Hashim Amla needs 18 more runs to get to 9000 in Tests. If he gets there, he will be the third South African batsman to the landmark after Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith.

  • Kusal Mendis needs three more runs to become the 18th Sri Lankan to 2000 Test runs.

  • The last time a Test was drawn in Sri Lanka was on South Africa's last tour in July 2014, in Colombo. Since then, 19 matches have been played and Sri Lanka have won 11.

    Quotes

    Faf du Plessis: I do feel within our bowling attack that we do have the ability to get 20 wickets on whatever the surface is. This series will be one where the batters need to stand up from both teams. Sri Lanka are in the same boat - they've got very good spinners and they'll sit there thinking they've got the ability to get 20 wickets as well. That's where you'll see the series won or lost - in the batting department.

    Roshen Silva: We know that the Galle wicket is generally suitable for spinners. We haven't had a chance to take a look at the wicket here as it has been under covers most of the time. We will take a look tomorrow morning and then will decide on how to move forward.

    *Story has been updated following Sri Lanka's code-of-conduct hearing