In a bleak year worldwide, at least South African cricket supporters had something to cheer about — a triumphant Proteas performance down under in November. And fans can look forward to an equally exciting Boxing Day Test against Sri Lanka.
Six months ago, the prospect of Sri Lanka as festive season opponents barely raised a flicker of interest. But much has changed following their scintillating 3-0 Test demolition of Australia on home soil in July and August. Sri Lanka are a team on the rise and share several traits of reinvention with their upcoming hosts.
Just as the Proteas required a few years to rise out of the shadows of legends such as Graeme Smith, Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher, the men from the Golden Island have had to cast aside the lingering legacies of even greater men in Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Muttiah Muralitharan.
It takes time for the next generation to develop the necessary confidence and belief in their abilities. Those who have played secondary roles to the greats need a number of matches and series under their belts to become the new leaders, and the youngsters — the tyros — need an atmosphere free from (unintended) intimidation.
Faf du Plessis spoke often in recent months, before and during the tour of Australia, about the team’s need to “start their own journey” and create their own history. It may seem harsh on the recently departed heroes of both teams, but they really do need to clear out their lockers and absent themselves for a while before beginning to contribute once again.
Sangakkara and Jayawardene recommended Angelo Mathews (anointed, to all intents and purposes) to take over as captain during their final years. Yet even he, as as a strong leader and brilliant all-round cricketer as he is, was reluctant to accept the post with two of the greatest batsmen/captains in history in his ranks. Eventually he did so, but it is no surprise that his team’s success has increased exponentially since Sangakkara and Jayawardene’s departure.
Dinesh Chandimal (27) and Kusal Mendis (21) have flourished, and cricket supporters would do well to keep their names in mind during this tour. Chandimal debuted as a wicketkeeper and moved around the batting order, but batting is his forte. He has flourished under 29-year-old Mathews, embracing the role of senior pro and producing some remarkable and match-winning performances in the middle order.
Mendis is the tyro. Brilliant and destructive, a batsman to change the course of a game as decisively as a bowler who takes 6-30. He did just this against Australia in the first Test on July 29, when he smashed 176 out of a second innings total of 353 to help his country to a stunning victory after being bowled out for just 117 in the first innings.
Then there is 38-year-old Rangana Herath, who wanted to retire a year ago but was persuaded not to — perhaps pleaded with would be more accurate.
His left-arm spin is undoubtedly more valuable in subcontinental conditions. But changes in pace, angle and flight are his speciality and they are just as effective, no matter what the pitch offers.
Herath’s series haul of 28 wickets at 12.75 against Australia was the single greatest contributor to Sri Lanka’s epic Test victory. He followed that up with a haul of 19 more in two Tests against Zimbabwe in Harare in October.
If his batsmen can find a way to put enough runs on the board, Herath will lead an intimidating battery of spinners, including 25-year-old left-arm chinaman bowler Lakshan Sandakan, against the Proteas on Boxing Day.
As for the home team, why change it? The most resounding and humiliating win by South Africa over Australia in more than a century took place in Hobart in November, after a glorious fight back to victory in Perth. Credit to the hosts for a rousing consolation in Adelaide, but the job was done by then.
AB de Villiers, the best batsman in the world, has been out of action for more than five months with an elbow injury and his absence has been felt far less acutely than predicted. Fitting him back into the team, never mind the captaincy, was a concern until, on medical advice, he ruled himself out of the upcoming series against Sri Lanka.
At this point, De Villiers chose to relinquish the leadership he had coveted for much of his life, after just two Test matches in charge.
Having been usurped by an administratively motivated, last-minute push for Hashim Amla, factors beyond his control have once again stymied De Villiers. If he is able to accept his fate without resentment or rancour, he can finish his Test career in the blaze of glory it deserves.
There are three Tests in New Zealand scheduled for early next year, then four in England and an astonishing, unprecedented 13 matches over four series at home next summer.
De Villiers could break and set records unlikely ever to be broken should he play them all.
For now, sit back, relax, enjoy the holidays and keep an eye out for two recently unheralded teams that will probably put on one hell of a show.