'Youngsters filling vacuum left by Sanga, Mahela, Dilshan' – Mathews

Angelo Mathews is one of three players in Sri Lanka’s squad who was part of their Test win in Durban in 2011 © AFP

For the first time in about two years, Angelo Mathews has reason to approach a foreign tour with some degree of optimism. Mathews was not part of the side that recently won 2-0 in Zimbabwe. His most recent away series have been the 0-2 drubbings in England and New Zealand. He has not been part of a Test side that has won overseas since June 2014, when he clubbed 160 and took 4 for 44 in an innings – both career bests – at Headingley.

The current squad, however, arrives with a little form behind it. Of the likely top seven, four have scored a hundred in one of their six most-recent innings. One of those – Dhananjaya de Silva – has scores of 129, 65*, 64, and 127 during that period. Kusal Mendis, meanwhile, top-scored on two incredibly tough surfaces – at Pallekele and Galle – to set up the series win against Australia. On their shoulders rest many hopes.

“When Sanga, Mahela and Dilshan retired it created a vacuum in the team, but the youngsters have taken it up well,” Mathews said. “We saw in the Australia series that the youngsters like Kusal Mendis and Dhananjaya de Silva were standing up. It’s great to see them coming through.”

Sri Lanka’s batsmen also returned pleasing scores from their three-day practice match in Potchefstroom. Seven out of the eight specialist batsmen in the squad hit half centuries there (Mathews was the only one to miss out), and perhaps most encouragingly, openers Dimuth Karunaratne and Kaushal Silva put on an opening stand of 159 before both retired in the first innings. Both batsmen have had lean spells through the year.

“In Potchefstroom the facilities were very good, so we’ve had plenty of time to get used to the conditions,” Mathews said. “The wickets were quite a bit slower than other parts of South Africa. I thought we got the maximum out of the 10 days that we got there.”

South Africa have also returned triumphant from Australia, however, and are likely to present a stiffer test to the top order than they have had in the last five Tests. Sri Lanka’s recent record on faster tracks makes for worrying reading. They were out for 91 and 119 at Headingley in May, before slumping to 101 at Chester-le-Street. A 117 at Pallekele followed, though they did go on to overturn a hefty deficit and win that match.

Sri Lanka may, however, take encouragement from the only Test they have won in South Africa – the 2011 Boxing Day Test. Mathews, Dinesh Chandimal and Rangana Herath were all part of that XI.

“South Africa have been playing extremely good cricket against Australia,” Mathews said. “They went over to Australia and beat the Australians, which is not an easy thing to do. If we play to our potential – we’ve got the skills. We’ve done it in the past.”

Like that Durban surface, the one at Port Elizabeth has a reputation for being low and slow. Days out from the match, Sri Lanka remain unsure about what the surface for the first Test holds.

“No one has played any Test matches or one-dayers here from this touring party. We’ve heard so many things but, we will not think about it too much because we’re not sure what we’re going to get. We’ll look at it closer on the day before the match.”

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo’s Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando

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Source: ESPN Crickinfo

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