My first thought when looking at the fixture list is that this is going to be a one sided series. South Africa have their flaws, but they are a good side overall and Sri Lanka have rarely looked like testing their opponents. Still it is South Africa and they do have a knack for choking.
Sri Lanka though will really need to work to make any of the matches close. Sri Lanka have not won a Test this year and excluding the match at Galle that was played on a minefield their bowlers have an average almost fifty over the past twelve months. In thirteen innings they have only bowled their opposition out five times and in the eight matches in that time (still excluding the Galle Test) they took twenty wickets just once. Their bowlers average just eleven wickets per Test, the worst in the world in that time, including Bangladesh. (The best is Pakistan, incidentally, with an average 19.44 wickets taken per Test.) Their batting has been their strength and they have saved six of the nine Tests in which they have played this year, but they have also been inconsistent in that time. They collapsed badly in Cardiff and were bowled out cheaply in the first two tests in the UAE as well. (Though admittedly both of those were against good bowling attacks.)
Their build-up to the series has not gone according to plan either. Four of their seamers, including a first choice one, were ruled out before the tour and Nuwan Pradeep tore a hamstring after arriving in South Africa. They only played the one warmup match and in it they allowed the South African Invitational XI to get to 245-2 at one stage. Each of the top five of the SAI XI went past fifty and of the Sri Lankan bowling only Herath looked like a proper threat. In addition to Pradeep’s injury in that match, Kumar Sangakkara also tore the webbing of his hand, putting him in doubt for the first Test. The only bright spot for Sri Lanka is that Paranavitana scored a century when they came to bat, but the rains meant that they did not get to bat for long and that they are going to be very short of match practice going into the Test.
South Africa are harder to predict. There are more mercurial in general and they have not had a lot of cricket recently to allow their form to be judged. It’s fair to say that their performances against Australia were all over the map. They certainly have the batting strength to put a weak Sri Lankan attack to the sword, if they play as well as they ought to, but whether they have the bowling to force victory against a Sri Lankan side used to clinging on for draws is more of a question. Dale Steyn remains world class, of course, and this is an attack that reduced Australia to 21-9. (Though that was not entirely their doing.) It’s also an attack against which that selfsame Australian side successfully chased 310 to win, however.
I don’t see the depleted Sri Lankan attack taking twenty wickets in any of the matches and with their lack of time in the middle they will struggle to save the first Test, especially if Sangakkara does not recover in time. They may improve for the next two, but I think it will be too late, even with South Africa’s historic problems finishing off series. I’m tipping South Africa to win the series 1-0.