South Africa look to re-focus against favourite opponents

Picture courtesy: Getty Images
Over the past week, South Africa have had much more to confront than their opponents on the cricket field. If you haven’t followed closely, here’s a quick recap.
Ahead of the first match against Australia last Saturday, South Africa’s players chose different gestures through which to express their support for anti-racism, some kneeling with a raised fist (incl. Rassie van der Dussen, Keshav Maharaj, Kagiso Rabada, Tabraiz Shamsi), some raising a fist while standing (incl. Dwayne Pretorius, Aiden Markram, David Miller), and others simply standing to attention (incl. Anrich Nortje, and Heinrich Klaasen). But although CSA had allowed their players to show their support for the global movement in these three ways, they had decided on the morning of the next match – against West Indies – that everyone must kneel, in order to avoid the appearance of disunity.
Quinton de Kock, who seems to have been taken aback by the suddenness of the kneeling mandate (it was only conveyed to the players on the day of the game), chose not to be available for the match. Days later, though, he issued an emotional press statement, apologising for any hurt he may have caused through his withdrawal, stating that he was ready to kneel, and that he has always opposed racism, even if he did not always agree with making such gestures.
The good news for South Africa, hopefully, is that they can now put the issue behind them. Difficult conversations have been had. Captain Temba Bavuma, who has always been adamant that the door remained open for de Kock, can now have South Africa’s best batter in his XI. They will hope that the events of the past few days, and that their confronting of their differences, will make the team stronger.
They will breathe easier too, that their next opponent is a side they have dominated over the past two years. South Africa whitewashed Sri Lanka in a three-match T20 series in September. In fact they’ve won the last six T20Is against Sri Lanka, and for the majority of that time have seemed by far the better team. In a reversal of much of these teams’ cricketing history, Sri Lanka have struggled substantially against South Africa’s spinners. Against the left-arm wristspin of Shamsi, yes, but also against the left-arm fingerspin of Maharaj, and even the gentle offbreaks of Markram, who took four wickets in six overs in that September series. Less than 48 hours before this match, they had also stumbled against the legspin of Adam Zampa.
Sri Lanka’s quicks had a bad outing against Australia too, but where the attack has largely been good over the past few months, the batting has only sporadically clicked, and this remains their area of greatest concern. Even if the top order delivers a good start, as was the case on Thursday, there has been a tendency to lose their way against high-quality spin through the middle overs. That captain Dasun Shanaka is yet to make a substantial score this tournament is also a worry.
Whatever baggage he brings to this match, Quinton de Kock also brings a good record against Sri Lanka from that September series in which he was highest scorer. Across those three matches, he struck 153 runs and was dismissed only once – a performance for which he was named Player of the Series. That was largely against the same attack he is likely to face on Saturday too (only Lahiru Kumara was missing), and you suspect that nothing would please de Kock and his team more than for him to get runs, and put the week’s controversy behind him, to the extent that such a thing is possible.
Dasun Shanaka has drawn acclaim for his leadership (Sri Lanka have arguably already overperformed in this World Cup, relative to expectations), but his own batting has been poor. In domestic cricket, Shanaka is a T20 gun. He finished atop the run charts by a distance in a recent SLC T20 league. But in internationals, his top-score as captain (from 11 innings) is 27 not out. What’s worse, though he’s in the team as a finisher, he has struck at a paltry 102.68 since taking the reins. Lately, Sri Lanka have even taken to promoting Wanindu Hasaranga up the order ahead of him. But if they are to make a deep run in this tournamemnt, they desperately need Shanaka to produce the kinds of innings they see from him in domestic cricket.

Sharjah’s tracks tend to be on the slower side. Though, there is also the chance – depending on the exact strip that will be used – that the ground will be strongly asymmetric again, which is not a situation spinners enjoy. Temperatures are expected to be in the low 30s celsius range.

Maheesh Theekshana was deemed fit enough to play against Australia, but he did need attention on his side strain during the match. Since there is less than 48 hours between the two games, perhaps Sri Lanka will be tempted to rest him, especially if the strain is likely to impact his performance. Lahiru Kumara was taken apart by the Australia top order, so while Sri Lanka may be tempted to leave him out for left-armer Binura Fernando, they will probably persist with Kumara.
Sri Lanka (possible): 1 Pathum Nissanka, 2 Kusal Perera (wk), 3 Charith Asalanka, 4 Avishka Fernando, 5 Bhanuka Rajapaksa, 6 Dasun Shanaka (capt.), 7 Chamika Karunaratne, 8 Wanindu Hasaranga, 9 Dushmantha Chameera, 10 Maheesh Theekshana/Akila Dananjaya, 11 Lahiru Kumara
With de Kock returning, Reeza Hendricks will probably drop back down to No. 3. Heinrich Klaasen is likeliest to make way.
South Africa (possible): 1 Temba Bavuma (capt), 2 Quinton de Kock (wk) 3 Reeza Hendricks, 4 Aiden Markam, 5 Rassie van der Dussen, 6 David Miller, 7 Dwaine Pretorius, 8 Kagiso Rabada, 9 Keshav Maharaj, 10 Anrich Nortje, 11 Tabraiz Shamsi
Report Courtesy: By Andrew Fidel Fernando