Colombo, July 26:

Injury-hit South Africa received unexpected support for the first Test against Sri Lanka starting here on Thursday from the man likely to cause them the biggest headache. Prolific spinner Muttiah Muralitharan said the Proteas will be tough to beat in the two-match series despite being crippled by the absence of three key players.

Smith and leading all-rounder Jacques Kallis are recovering at home from injuries while veteran Shaun Pollock opted to skip the first Test at the Sinhalese sports club following the birth of his second child.

The hosts suffered a major blow of their own as seasoned left-arm seamer Chaminda Vaas was ruled out of the match due to a hamstring injury suffered at the end of the England tour. “We don’t want to take any risks with him going into a Test match,” said captain Mahela Jayawardena. Sri Lanka have drafted in reserve wicket-keeper Prasanna Jayawardena to bat at number seven and allow Kumar Sangakkara to concentrate on his batting.

Jayawardena hinted that Sanath Jayasuriya may once again open the innings, displacing young Michael Vandort who opened in England.

South Africa’s stand-in captain Ashwell Prince, 29, said the tourists were geared for the battle ahead. “We will obviously miss our three big players but it’s an opportunity for others to show their worth,” said Prince.