DURBAN - After a whitewash at the hands of Australia, Sri Lanka will find it no easier when they take on the No.2-ranked South Africa in the first of two Tests, starting Wednesday, 13 February, in Durban.

Sri Lanka’s 2019 has begun with tough outings in challenging conditions against teams known for their fast-bowling strength, and their batting line-up, which has missed key players on occasion, hasn’t been able to step up to the challenge. A stonewalling effort from Angelo Mathews and Kusal Mendis helped begin the team’s tour of the southern hemisphere well with a draw against New Zealand in the first Test in December. However, since that 274-run match-saving partnership in the second innings, the team have tapered off.

Sri Lanka lost their last Test of 2018 by 423 runs and then went on to lose 2-0 to a wounded Australian team. The visiting batsmen struggled to cope with pace and bounce. And if Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins were tough to handle, it will be as tough, if not tougher, to face Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada and Player of the Series Duanne Olivier, who helped South Africa rout Pakistan 3-0 at home.

Mathews is out injured, Dinesh Chandimal, who led the side in Australia, has been dropped, and fast bowler Lahiru Kumara is also out injured. Hence, Sri Lanka have picked four uncapped in left-arm spin bowler Lasith Embuldeniya, fast bowler Mohamed Shiraz, and batters Angelo Perera and Oshada Fernando.

Dimuth Karunaratne has been named captain and the onus will be on him as well as Mendis, Lahiru Thirimanne, Kusal Perera, Dhananjaya de Silva and vice-captain Niroshan Dickwella to share responsibility with the bat.

Suranga Lakmal, who missed the second Test against Australia due to injury, is back and will lead a young fast-bowling attack comprising of Kasun Rajitha, Chamika Karunaratne and Vishwa Fernando. For the visitors, the series will be a chance to redeem themselves. The hosts have been at their strongest over the past 12 months, in complete contrast to their opponents, beating India, Australia and Pakistan at home, but will do well to remember that Sri Lanka had spun a web around their batsmen when they had visited the island nation.

The conditions, of course, are different from what they got in Sri Lanka in August, when they were swept 2-0. If the past series are any indication, fast bowlers are likely to enjoy themselves, although they are playing on grounds where spinners could have a say as the match goes on. Keshav Maharaj is the lone specialist spinner in the squad. Faf du Plessis is back to lead the side after resting during the Twenty20 Internationals against Pakistan and will slot into a batting line-up that has Hashim Amla, Quinton de Kock, Aiden Markram, Theunis de Bruyn and Dean Elgar.

South Africa’s Duanne Olivier’s feat against Pakistan has helped South Africa add a fourth dimension to their fast-bowling reserves, thereby giving their opposition no breathing space even while the strike bowlers are resting between spells. Sri Lanka will be wary.

Dimuth Karunaratne, new captain and Sri Lanka’s main man at the top of the order, will have the huge responsibility to see off the new ball against the likes of Steyn and Rabada. The rest of the line-up will depend on the start he gives them.

South Africa have a poor record in Durban. Last time, they lost to Australia by 118 runs, and the highest score across innings in that Test was Australia’s 351. But with rain forecast on four of the five days, the team winning the toss may be tempted to bowl first and make the best use of overcast conditions.

SQUADS

SOUTH AFRICA : Faf du Plessis (c), Hashim Amla, Temba Bavuma, Theunis de Bruyn, Quinton de Kock, Dean Elgar, Zubayr Hamza, Keshav Maharaj, Aiden Markram, Wiaan Mulder, Duanne Olivier, Vernon Philander, Kagiso Rabada, Dale Steyn.

SRI LANKA : Dimuth Karunaratne (c), Niroshan Dickwella, Lahiru Thirimanne, Kaushal Silva, Kusal Mendis, Kusal Perera, Milinda Siriwardana, Dhananjaya De Silva, Oshada Fernando, Angelo Perera, Suranga Lakmal, Kasun Rajitha, Vishwa Fernando, Chamika Karunaratne, Mohamed Shiraz, Lakshan Sandakan, Lasith Embuldeniya.