Sri Lanka v Australia, 1st ODI, Dambulla February 19, 2004

Sri Lanka put substance in spin

A relaxed John Buchanan takes time out for a bit of sightseeing ahead of Australia's first ODI against Sri Lanka

The much-awaited Australia tour of Sri Lanka starts in earnest on Friday, when the first ODI gets underway at Dambulla. Australia are determined to use the five-match series to overcome a reputation for touring badly in the subcontinent, while Sri Lanka - unsurprisingly and unashamedly - have pinned their hopes on their spinners.

Sri Lanka are seeking to turn home conditions to their advantage. After Australia's mauling of a strong Indian side in the recent best-of-three VB Series finals, it's clear that they need all the help they can get. The Dambulla outfield is lush and green but the pitch is bone-dry and will be painstakingly slow. Seamers dominated the last match at the venue, against England last November, but that was during the monsoon season. This time, it is the height of summer.

The conditions, which the likely Sri Lanka XI experienced first-hand in a day-night practice match on Tuesday (they even used the same pitch that will be used on Friday), mean that Sri Lanka are set to make one change to the side that walloped England in their last one-dayer. Dinusha Fernando, Chaminda Vaas's new-ball partner on that occasion, will be replaced by Kumar Dharmasena.

The change leaves Marvan Atapattu, the one-day captain, with a multitude of spin options. Muttiah Muralitharan, his sore shoulder now fully repaired, will lead the attack with Dharmasena and Upul Chandana in support. As back-up, there will be Sanath Jayasuriya with his slow left-arm and Tillakaratne Dilshan with a few off-breaks.

The strategy is entirely sensible judging by the past record of the two sides in Sri Lanka. Australia have never won a one-day series or tournament in Sri Lanka and have won only three of the 14 matches played. This compares with an 82% win record against Sri Lanka on home soil.

"It is no secret that spin has been our strength and on these kind of pitches, and it has to be slow bowlers that dominate," said Atapattu after the team's practice on Wednesday evening. "No matter how experienced or skillful you are, it is difficult to adapt to these conditions. We are expecting an assault to start with [from Australia's batters], but strokemaking is a little difficult on these wickets."

Australia know what is in store and appear entirely comfortable with the challenge. Ricky Ponting has repeatedly voiced his confidence in his team adapting quickly and his desire for them to play the same exciting brand of cricket overseas that makes them virtually unbeatable at home. Indeed, Australia are so confident that they took the day off on Wednesday rather than get an early look at the conditions.

Ponting has identified patience against Sri Lanka's spinners as the key: "The game plan ... is to keep wickets in hand for as long as we can against their spinners and be a bit more patient through the middle of our innings. You know that on these grounds whatever you sacrifice through the middle you can pick up at the end of the innings with wickets in hand."

Australia will decide upon the final line-up and, crucially, the best balance for the bowling attack when Trevor Hohns, the chairman of selectors, joins the team on Thursday. "We have got to look at whether we go in with two quick bowlers, an allrounder and an extra couple of spinners or three quick bowlers, an allrounder and spinner."

The likeliest scenario appears to be Jason Gillespie and Brett Lee with the new ball, Ian Harvey with his medium-paced all-sorts, and Brad Hogg, the only bowler to complete a full quota of overs in the practice match, as the specialist bowlers. The remaining 10 overs could be shared by the part-time spinners: Andrew Symonds, Michael Clarke and/or Simon Katich.

Michael Bevan played no part in the President's XI warm-up but Buchanan insisted that was merely precautionary. His batting is apparently no longer handicapped by his fractured rib and he will probably be slotted back into the team in place of Katich.

The match will be a special day for Sanath Jayasuriya. Now 34-years-old and enjoying his role as a senior statesman in the team, he will become the most capped Sri Lankan ODI player in history when he walks onto the field for the 309th time. During the course of the series, Jayasuriya, now with 9172 runs, also has a chance of overhauling Aravinda de Silva's record 9284 ODI-run aggregate.

Sri Lanka (probable) 1 Sanath Jayasuriya, 2 Romesh Kaluwitharana (wk), 3 Marvan Atapattu (capt), 4 Kumar Sangakkara, 5 Mahela Jayawardene, 6 Tillakaratne Dilshan, 7 Upul Chandana, 8 Kumar Dharmasena, 9 Chaminda Vaas, 10 Nuwan Kulasekera, 11 Muttiah Muralitharan.

Australia (probable) 1 Adam Gilchrist (wk), 2 Matthew Hayden, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Damien Martyn, 5 Andrew Symonds, 6 Michael Clarke, 7 Michael Bevan, 8 Ian Harvey, 9 Brad Hogg, 10 Brett Lee, 11 Jason Gillespie.