Remember the time Sri Lanka beat South Africa in a Test at home ? Of the current home squad only Hashim Amla really does.
Amla is the only surviving member from the XI who were defeated in Durban five years ago, a time when his reputation was already established. But he is also the only South African batsmen who did not score a half-century on their most recent assignment in Australia. How times have changed.
For Sri Lanka too. They have only brought three of the victors from that series. One of them, Angelo Mathews, is now the captain; another Dinesh Chandimal, who debuted at Kingsmead with twin fifties, has added 30 Test caps to his name and averages almost 45. The third, Rangana Herath, is their constant.
Like their hosts, Sri Lanka have gone through a transition and are still trying to find solid ground as they move on from the retirements of some of their greats. A tour of South Africa – where that Durban Test provided their only win in 10 attempts – may not be the best place to find it. Conversely, for South Africa, it is exactly the series to stabilise.
To call South Africa an evolving team has become as hackneyed as calling Pakistan mercurial or West Indies in decline. Every team has stalwarts; every team goes through change. Perhaps not every team lingers on it for as long as South Africa have done.
Their high-profile retirements, Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith, came three summers ago but it barely seems that long. The uncertainty in the leadership role may have had an unsettling effect, but now that they have settled on a leader in Faf du Plessis, South Africa can properly confront the present – a present that has forced them to contemplate life without another set of superstars.
With AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel all injured, South Africa have seen the future. They will see it again in this series, starting at St George’s Park – the ground that connects them more to their past than any other – on Monday.
The home of the first Test played in South Africa is also the place where de Villiers and Steyn debuted 12 years ago. The last time it hosted a Test, de Villiers and Steyn were celebrating a decade as international cricketers. This time, they won’t be here at all.
Instead, Quinton de Kock and Temba Bavuma, who also made their first Test appearances in Port Elizabeth, make up the middle-order and Kagiso Rabada and Kyle Abbott, neither of whom have played a Test at St George’s, lead the attack. The quartet are proof of how much South Africa have progressed. Although de Kock and Bavuma are still considered junior members of the side, they are the second and third leading run-scorers for South Africa in Test cricket this year while Rabada leads their wicket-tally.
The future has taken the focus off the familiar faces but that’s not to say it will stay that way. Vernon Philander and JP Duminy enjoyed second comings in Australia and both will be keen to continue that. For Philander, consistency is especially important ahead of away tours to New Zealand and England; for Duminy, consistency is crucial. He has been spoken of as the batsmen most under pressure for his place when de Villiers returns but there will be more than that on his mind.
Duminy has been given the additional responsibility of batting at No. 4 and with that, a real chance to show that he can turn his talent into long-term success. Flashes of brilliance are not going to cut it in this new South African side, even though it took just that for them to win in Australia.
There, the same batsman did not score a century twice. They crossed the 500 mark once and totalled more than 300 once but it was the bowlers who won the games. Perhaps it always is, but this is the series for the batsmen to have more of a say.
“If we are perfectly honest, we’ve been good as a batting unit but we probably still haven’t fired,” Abbott said. “If we are really critical, we haven’t put on that 500, 550 score that we are looking to do. It is encouraging with each guy chipping in, crucial hundreds when we needed it. If we can get that all to click here at home, we will put some good runs on the board.”
The openers, who have set to settle in a rhythm that suggests permanency, will be key in setting things up but if South Africa want to impose themselves with the bat, it will also take someone else. The same someone with the only first-hand memories of what it is like to lose to Sri Lanka at home: Hashim Amla.
With not even a half-century to show from Australia and an average of 25.29 in his last four away tours, Amla’s aura is no longer all-powerful. To some, like batting coach Neil McKenzie, the slump is temporary. McKenzie went as far as to warn Sri Lanka’s bowlers to expect punishment and he has evidence in his favour. In the same time that Amla has struggled away, since he was made captain in July 2014, he has prospered at home and averages 71.07.
Remember the time Hashim Amla went into a series with a point to prove? By the end of January, Sri Lanka might.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent