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Proteas wary of the challenge Sri Lanka tour will present

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The Sri Lankans have a hold over South Africa in Tests, winning each of the last four Tests between the two teams.

Kusal Perera was the star for Sri Lanka the time the visitors were in South Africa. Photo: Gerhard Duraan/BackpagePix

JOHANNESBURG – More than anything, perhaps even winning the series itself, Cricket South Africa (CSA) would just want the two Tests against Sri Lanka to go off without any more drama related to the coronavirus.

The federation has put in place strict controls at the bio-secure environment at the Irene Country Lodge where the two teams will be staying for the next few weeks. Covid tests will be conducted on players in the next few days leading up to the first match on Boxing Day at SuperSport Park.

The Proteas will be broken up into groups of six players with a coach, and golf – unlike for England – will be limited to the course at the Irene Country Club.

Covid-19, much as it is doing to the country, has battered South African cricket, since the season started in November. The Warriors had to change half their side for their opening match in the Four-Day Domestic Series; one match in the last round, in which six players picked for the Tests against Sri Lanka played, was halted after the first day when one of the players tested positive; and another player tested positive in the match between the Lions and VKB Knights, a fixture which included another six players from the Test squad.

Cricket SA then chose to postpone the next round of matches in that competition.

In the ‘bio-bubble’ set up for the England limited overs series’s two players tested positive before the squad went into the bubble, another returned a positive test while in the bubble, two members of staff at the hotel where the teams were staying tested positive, and England chose to leave citing concerns over safety measures, although it subsequently emerged that their players were lax with the rules, choosing to play golf at courses not cleared by Cricket SA.

On Friday CSA announced that two members of the Test squad returned positive tests, putting them out of the series with Sri Lanka. All of this can be a little numbing, and it is to CSA’s credit, that it is aware of and takes responsibility for the mental well-being of players who have been affected.

It certainly won’t be anything close to normal in terms of preparation for the players. The mental stresses of playing a Test match will be added onto the strains of operating in a bubble, on top of the concerns they will naturally have for teammates affected by the virus.

It will be a massive challenge for Mark Boucher and his coaching staff to get the players focussed on playing.

Besides all the concerns about the virus, these are also strange times for the South African Test side. The five-day format isn’t being given the priority it normally would for the next few years given how few Test matches the Proteas will be playing. There is a much greater emphasis on the limited overs formats, with three ICC tournaments taking place over the next three years.

National selection convener Victor Mpitsang used the lack of Test match play as one of the reasons for handing the captaincy to Quinton de Kock, who is already leading the limited overs teams, opening the batting in those formats and keeping. He’ll continue to don the gloves in the Tests, and is also the team’s most important batsman.

South Africa’s Test form in recent years has been woeful. They’ve won one of their last nine matches, a stretch that includes the shock 2-0 defeat to Sri Lanka on home soil last year. A mix of magnificence from Kusal Perera and then downright complacency in Port Elizabeth – with one eye on the World Cup which was to follow – proved costly for the Proteas.

In fact the Sri Lankans have a hold over South Africa in Tests, winning each of the last four Tests between the two teams.

The series may lack the glamour of battles against England, Australia or India, but Sri Lanka are not a team South Africa can afford to take lightly. They may not have played a lot this year, but all of their players are fresh off what many regard as a very competitive T20 competition, and besides the presence of all 11 players who won that series here last year, they will also have more intimate knowledge of conditions and some of the newer South African players, through their South African coach Mickey Arthur.

South Africa have a number of questions that need answering; who will partner Dean Elgar at the top of the order? Who bats at No.3? Do they back a seam bowling all-rounder? Where will De Kock bat? Besides Anrich Nortjé and Keshav Maharaj, who else will make up the rest of the attack?

As it stands, it’s difficult to answer those questions from the outside given that the state of the squad is not known because CSA doesn’t identify players who test positive for Covid-19.

These are extremely abnormal times, and the hope is that discussing batting orders and bowling line-ups will be possible in the next few days and that the Tests happen without too much more disruption.

PROTEAS TEST SQUAD *

Quinton de Kock (capt), Temba Bavuma, Aiden Markram, Faf du Plessis, Beuran Hendricks, Dean Elgar, Keshav Maharaj, Lungi Ngidi, Rassie van der Dussen, Sarel Erwee, Anrich Nortje, Glenton Stuurman, Wiaan Mulder, Keegan Petersen, Kyle Verreynne, Migael Pretorius, Raynard van Tonder, Lutho Sipamla, Dwaine Pretorius. *Two members of the squad named above tested positive for Covid-19. Cricket SA does not release the names of players who’ve tested positive.

SRI LANKA TEST SQUAD

Dimuth Karunaratne (capt), Oshada Fernando, Lahiru Thirimanne, Kusal Mendis, Dinesh Chandimal, Kusal Perera, Niroshan Dickwella, Dhananjaya De Silva, Dasun Shanaka, Minod Bhanuka, Santhush Gunathilaka, Wanindu Hasaranga, Dilruwan Perera, Lasith Embuldeniya, Suranga Lakmal, Lahiru Kumara, Vishwa Fernando, Kasun Rajitha, Asitha Fernando, Dushmantha Chameera, Dilshan Madushanka