Andrew Fidel Fernando, courtesy of ESPNcricinfo, where the title runs “Weakened Sri Lanka seek to overcome South Africa’s dominance”
Well, it’s too early in the tournament for South Africa to stutter. Let’s get that out of the way, for starters. This, instead, is the portion of a global tournament in which they ordinarily stomp around crushing weaker teams without mercy. It is almost indisputable that Sri Lanka are the weaker side, too. One glance at the ODI player rankings will bear that out. Where South Africa have four batsmen in the top ten, Sri Lanka’s highest ranked batsman is way down at No. 26, and that is Angelo Mathews, who is unlikely to be available for this clash. On the bowling front, Kagiso Rabada and Imran Tahir take up the top two spots, while Sri Lanka’s best, Suranga Lakmal, comes in at No. 24. Add the recent history between these teams – the 5-0 walloping South Africa had dealt out earlier in the year – and Sri Lanka’s prospects begin to appear exceedingly grim.
It is hope that holds Sri Lanka together, at present. Hope that Lasith Malinga’s return to the ODI attack will inspire the other quicks to avoid being repeatedly launched out of The Oval. Hope that Lakshan Sandakan’s wristspin can prove effective enough in the middle overs to muzzle powerful opposition batsmen. Hope that the youthful exuberance of men like Kusal Mendis and Niroshan Dickwella can compensate for the lack of form and results. Hope that Thisara Perera will play like the all-round superstar he once promised to be, rather than the sporadic performer of the last three years.
South Africa are fresh from a series loss, so they perhaps are not as buoyant as they could be. But in demolishing England at Lord’s in the final match of that series – a dead rubber – they have Rabada and Wayne Parnell going into the tournament with some confidence. South Africa will back themselves to bowl the opposition out. Most of their likely top five have made recent runs as well.
Sri Lanka WLLLL (completed matches, most recent first)
South Africa WLLWL
In the spotlight
Imran Tahir missed two of the three matches against England with a hamstring concern, but has now recovered and is available. That is not good news for Sri Lanka. In nine matches against them, Tahir has claimed 20 wickets at 17.60 – his best average against any team playing in the Champions Trophy. In the bilateral series earlier in the year, he repeatedly dominated the middle overs, and sunk Sri Lanka’s innings even when they achieved good starts.
Having been out of Sri Lanka’s sides a year ago, Upul Tharanga finds himself constantly laden with responsibility in 2017. He is gearing up to be acting captain again, with Mathews having sustained a calf injury. As the only player with more than five ODI centuries to his name in the team, Tharanga will likely have to hold Sri Lanka together with the bat, while the younger men attack around him, if his team is to make something out of this tournament.
South Africa captain AB de Villiers hinted that the team would try to make room for Morne Morkel in the XI, but the transformation policy complicates that selection slightly. Elsewhere David Miller has sufficiently recovered from a niggle and is likely to be in the XI.
South Africa: 1 Quinton de Kock (wk), 2 Hashim Amla, 3 Faf du Plessis, 4 AB de Villiers (capt), 5 JP Duminy, 6 David Miller, 7 Chris Morris, 8 Wayne Parnell/Morne Morkel, 9 Andile Phehlukwayo, 10 Kagiso Rabada, 11 Imran Tahir
Mathew’s unavailability has not been confirmed yet. He is set to undergo a fitness to make a definitive ruling on whether he can play. It seems almost certain, however, that he will not be bowling even if he does make the XI. If Mathews can’t play, Kusal Perera may come in lower down the order, with Sri Lanka committed to sticking with Tharanga and Niroshan Dickwella at the top of the innings. There is not much to choose between Suranga Lakmal and Nuwan Kulasekara for the position of second specialist quick – but Kulasekara’s experience may earn him that place.
Sri Lanka (possible): 1 Niroshan Dickwella (wk), 2 Upul Tharanga (capt), 3 Kusal Mendis, 4 Dinesh Chandimal, 5 Asela Gunaratne, 6 Chamara Kapugedara, 7 Kusal Perera, 8 Thisara Perera, 9 Nuwan Kulasekara, 10 Lakshan Sandakan, 11 Lasith Malinga
Pitch and conditions: The Oval surface is not expected to be quite as batting-friendly as it was for the tournament opener between England and Bangladesh, but it’s unlikely to suddenly become a bowlers’ fantasy either. The weather is forecast to be cloudy but dry in London – the temperature hovering around the 20-degree mark.
Stats and trivia
- South Africa have won eight of the last nine ODIs between these teams.
- Nuwan Kulasekara is one scalp short of completing 200 ODI wickets and becoming the fifth Sri Lanka bowler to the milestone
- AB de Villiers, who has now played exactly 100 ODIs as captain, averages a monumental 66.33 when leading the team, with a strike rate of 110
- When these teams last met in the Champions Trophy, in 2009 at Centurion, Sri Lanka won by 55 runs
*”I would love to get my hands on it. It feels good in my hands. I would love to take that home one day.”
South Africa captain AB de Villiers on how his heart yearns for the Champions Trophy
*”From the outside it will look like South Africa have an advantage going into this match, because they beat us recently. But there’s also something to be said about going in as underdogs. We know what we have to do to beat them.”
Sri Lanka batsman Upul Tharanga is keeping his hopes us
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo’s Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando