The Sri Lankans' tour of South Africa was in distinct contrast to their visit three years earlier, when they had just two first-class matches and made up the numbers in a quadrangular limited-overs tournament. They had been lightly regarded by the fixture planners and did not play at South Africa's two major grounds, Wanderers and Newlands. Arjuna Ranatunga's team now returned as World Cup champions and were fêted accordingly.
Their results, however, were disappointing. Sri Lanka were beaten in both Tests and won only two out of six matches in a triangular limited-overs tournament against South Africa and Pakistan, failing to reach the final. South African spectators, though, warmed to the visitors. At the end of an arduous season, they provided some of the most entertaining cricket of the summer. One Sri Lankan paper suggested the players' own entertainments contributed to their poor results, but excessive socialising was not apparent to those who followed the tour.
For the home side, the pressure was less than it had been in the series against Pakistan and Australia. The selectors decided that now was the time to blood Makhaya Ntini, the 20-year-old fast bowler from Border, who became the first black African to play Test cricket for South Africa. Sri Lanka's batting did not quite live up to expectations, although the tourists reached 300 in each of their first three Test innings. They had an excellent chance to square the series when they took a 103-run first-innings lead at Centurion, but succumbed to inspired fast bowling by Allan Donald. Even then, they had a slight chance of winning when South Africa, needing 226 to win, were 99 for three and struggling against the off-spin of Muttiah Muralitharan. But Hansie Cronje swung the match decisively South Africa's way with a brutal assault on Sri Lanka's only bowler with match-winning potential.
Perhaps Centurion summed up the relative strengths of the teams. South Africa always seemed to have something in reserve when it mattered, whereas Sri Lanka lacked resilience in both batting and bowling. They had a wealth of experience, but there were signs of leg-weariness, notably from Aravinda de Silva, the classiest of their batsmen. Marvan Atapattu, the newest of the regulars in the top six, had a good tour, showing sound technique and temperament against the fast bowlers. His opening partner, Sanath Jayasuriya, did not live up to expectations on bouncy pitches and was seldom granted the width to indulge his favourite off-side strokes. Ranatunga played only one substantial Test innings, 73 at Centurion, but showed his quality in the limited-overs games.
Sri Lanka's bowling relied far too much on Muralitharan, who was outstanding. The South Africans found him an even more awkward opponent than in the first series between the two countries in Sri Lanka in 1993-94, when he took 16 wickets in three Tests. Muralitharan, who has developed variations on his sharply turning off-breaks, again took 16 wickets, nine more than Jayasuriya, who was a useful rather than a consistently threatening left-arm slow bowler. The pace bowling was mediocre. Its limited firepower was further reduced by a foot injury which hampered Chaminda Vaas throughout.
South Africa's wins in both Tests enabled them to finish the season with four wins and two defeats from 11 matches. They won a series away and shared one at home against Pakistan, and were beaten in Australia. Daryll Cullinan, having been dropped twice during the season, came back strongly with two centuries which re-established him at No. 4, while Gary Kirsten and Cronje averaged better than 50. Donald was again his country's best bowler. At Centurion, in his 42nd match, he became the first South African to take 200 Test wickets.
A. Ranatunga ( Sinhalese SC) (captain), P. A. De Silva ( Nondescripts CC) (vice-captain), R. P. Arnold ( Nondescripts CC), M. S. Atapattu ( Sinhalese SC), U. D. U. Chandana(Tamil Union C and AC), K. S. C. De Silva ( Nondescripts CC), H. D. P. K. Dharmasena (Bloomfield C and AC), S. T. Jayasuriya (Bloomfield C and AC), D. P. M. D. Jayawardene ( Sinhalese SC), R. S. Kaluwitharana ( Colts CC), R. S. Mahanama(Bloomfield C and AC), M. Muralitharan (Tamil Union C and AC), K. R. Pushapakumara ( Nondescripts CC), H. P. Tillekeratne ( Nondescripts CC), W. P. U. J. C. Vaas ( Colts CC), G. P. Wickremasinghe ( Sinhalese SC).
D. N. T. Zoysa ( Sinhalese SC) joined the party as cover for Vaas, who was injured during the First Test.
Manager: L. R. D. Mendis. Coach: B. Yardley.
Test matches- Played 2: Lost 2.
First-class matches- Played 4: Lost 3, Drawn 1.
Losses- South Africa (2), Gauteng.
One-day internationals- Played 6: Won 2, Lost 4. Wins- South Africa, Pakistan. Losses- South Africa (2), Pakistan (2).
Other non-first-class match- Won v North West.
Note: Matches in this section which were not first-class are signified by a dagger.
At Johannesburg, March 7, 8, 9. Gauteng won by 118 runs. Toss: Gauteng. Gauteng 296 for seven dec. ( N. D. McKenzie 135, D. J. Cullinan 47, D. N. Crookes 67; U. D. U. Chandana four for 80) and 203 for eight dec. ( A. J. Seymore 52, N. Pothas 40, R. P. Snell 44, Extras 33; W. P. U. J. C. Vaas three for 51, G. P. Wickremasinghe three for 42); Sri Lankans 243 for eight dec. (S. T. Jayasuriya 38, R. S. Mahanama 52, H. P. Tillekeratne 66 not out, R. S. Kaluwitharana 42, Extras 30; R. P. Snell three for 42, J. T. Mafa three for 53) and 138 ( R. S. Kaluwitharana 42; E. W. Kidwell three for 53, R. P. Snell three for 51).
At Fochville, March 11. Sri Lankans won by 93 runs. Toss: Sri Lankans. Sri Lankans 295 for eight (50 overs) ( R. P. Arnold 113, A. Ranatunga 80, R. S. Kaluwitharana 30, Extras 37); North West 202 (47.2 overs) ( H. M. de Vos 30, M. J. Lavine 51, E. G. Poole 35; P. A. De Silva five for 44).
At Paarl, March 14, 15, 16. Drawn. Toss: Boland. Boland 178 ( J. M. Henderson 33; M. Muralitharan four for 40) and 160 for seven dec. ( J. M. Henderson 61 not out, R. G. Arendse 38; M. Muralitharan five for 30); Sri Lankans 213 for four dec. ( R. S. Mahanama 82, H. P. Tillekeratne 52 not out, M. S. Atapattu 30 not out; R. Telemachus three for 26) and 48 for five ( R. Telemachus four for 30).
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