GALLE, Sri Lanka – Hashim Amla will make history on Wednesday when he takes the field as South Africa's first permanent non-white skipper, helming a team in transition after the retirements of Test greats Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis.
Amla, a devout Muslim, was named captain last month after Smith retired from international cricket, signalling the end of an era which saw him lead out the Proteas a record-breaking 109 times over ten years. Amla, 31, is the first non-white player to captain the Test side in a full-time capacity -- Ashwell Prince has skippered on a stand-in basis.
His appointment was seen in race-conscious South Africa as evidence that cricket there is serious about racial transformation. A two-Test series against Sri Lanka in Galle starting Wednesday is Amla's first assignment as South Africa looks to rebuild in the absence of Smith, all-rounder Kallis and experienced wicketkeeper Mark Boucher.
Amla, who has often shied away from the public eye, has urged patience, saying it will take time for a successful new side to gel. "It's a newish team with a few new names. It took the previous team a few years before we found a winning combination," said Amla, who smashed two centuries in the three-match one-day series against Sri Lanka.
"It will be naive to think it won't take time before we find another winning combination," he cautioned, adding that "not many teams go to Sri Lanka and dominate". The visitors go into the Tests on the back of their maiden ODI series victory in Sri Lanka, having won the third and final game in Hambantota on Saturday to clinch the three-match series 2-1.
Sri Lanka skipper Angelo Mathews' form has improved since taking charge of the team last February -- and with the ever-dependable Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara alongside him, the home team are a strong outfit. "We normally do perform well under pressure. It's just a matter of absorbing it," said Mathews.
"We've done pretty well in the past six months and I hope the team will continue to do so," the 27-year-old added. The hosts will draw confidence from their last outing at home against South Africa in 2006 which saw them win 2-0, including a massive innings-and-153-run victory in the first Test.
South Africa will be looking to reclaim their number one Test ranking from Australia while the hosts are keen to improve their sixth spot. The visitors can only climb to the top of the charts if they clinch the series 2-0. "Any Test team wants to be ranked number one," said Amla. "We've had that privilege but having lost it is a fair reflection of how we have played. We haven't played our best cricket over the last year or so," he admitted.
"It is a proud thing to be ranked number one. Foremost in my mind is to try and get us back there." Sri Lanka have recalled opener Upul Tharanga in their 15-member squad after six years while South Africa have added two fresh faces in batsman Stiaan van Zyl and off-spinner Dane Piedt, who are both strong candidates to debut. The second and final Test will be played in Colombo from July 24.
Sri Lanka (from): Angelo Mathews (captain), Lahiru Thirimanne, Upul Tharanga, Kaushal Silva, Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Dinesh Chandimal, Kithuruwan Vithanage, Rangana Herath, Dilruwan Perera, Ajantha Mendis, Suranga Lakmal, Shaminda Eranga, Dhammika Prasad, Chanaka Welegedara.
South Africa (from): Alviro Petersen, Dean Elgar, Hashim Amla (captain), Faf du Plessis, AB de Villiers, JP Duminy, Stiaan van Zyl, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel, Dale Steyn, Imran Tahir, Kyle Abbott, Quinton de Kock, Dane Piedt.