The two-test series starting in Galle on Wednesday marks the start of a new era for South Africa and the pending end of one for host Sri Lanka.
Following the retirements of captain Graeme Smith and allrounder Jacques Kallis, Hashim Amla becomes only the second non-white captain of South Africa after Ashwell Prince and the first to be appointed for the long run.
Leading the team, he says, is “an honor and privilege'” and hopes his team will draw confidence from its 2-1 one-day international series win last week, its first in Sri Lanka.
Winning both tests to wrest back the top spot in the test rankings will be difficult, though.
“The one-dayers have given the team a lot of confidence and a lot of belief of winning here even though test cricket is a largely different game,” Amla said.
“We’ve got an experienced bunch of guys and it has been a lot easier to focus. After a series like that, you don’t really need a down time.”
Amla himself smashed two centuries in the series under one-day captain AB de Villiers, who carries a hamstring injury into the opening test, and may have to hand the wicketkeeping gloves to Quinton de Kock.
“AB has been struggling with his hamstring so he’ll be playing but it’s highly unlikely he’ll be keeping,” Amla said.
Sri Lanka captain Angelo Mathews said they don’t have an advantage just because South Africa has a new captain.
“Changing the captain doesn’t really matter because they’ve still got those players in the team,” Mathews said. “They’re a very strong team to beat. They’ve lost to us in the past but they’ve played some really good cricket in the recent past so we can’t be complacent.”
Mathews conceded it will be difficult to make up for Jayawardene, who announced on Monday he will retire next month after playing two tests each against South Africa and Pakistan.
“He’s been tremendous for us in the past 15 years or so. It’s going to be a loss and difficult to fill his shoes. When I walked into the national team he was my first captain, and I learnt a lot by looking at him, by what he is doing on and off the field, the way he handles situations,” Mathews said.
He indicated that left-hander Upul Tharanga, who was recalled to the test side after six years, would open the batting with Kaushal Silva on a pitch expected to help slow bowling as the match progresses.
The second test will in Colombo from July 24-28.
Sri Lanka: Lahiru Thirimanne, Upul Tharanga, Kaushal Silva, Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Dinesh Chandimal, Angelo Mathews (captain), Kithuruwan Vithanage, Rangana Herath, Dilruwan Perera, Ajantha Mendis, Suranga Lakmal, Shaminda Eranga, Dhammika Prasad, Chanaka Welegedara.
South Africa: Alviro Petersen, Dean Elgar, Hashim Amla (captain), Faf du Plessis, AB de Villiers, Jean-Paul Duminy, Stiaan van Zyl, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel, Dale Steyn, Imran Tahir, Kyle Abbott, Quinton de Kock, Dane Piedt.
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