Tough trial awaits Munaweera
One game into the World Twenty20, it is clear Sri Lanka have invested a great deal in Dilshan Munaweera. The team has split up a successful opening pair, moving their best batsman Mahela Jayawardene to a less favoured batting position to accommodate Munaweera in his familiar spot. It would have been easy for the seniors to pull rank and ask Munaweera to inject energy into a middle order carrying two accumulators, but they've been careful to make his international baptism a gentle one. Largesse towards youngsters has been a hallmark of a side that understand the leap Sri Lanka players must make when they move from the local circuit to international cricket.
It also emphasises Munaweera's importance to Sri Lanka's campaign. Dinesh Chandimal waits on the sidelines to replace the first batsman to falter, but if he joins a lineup already looking short of firepower, Sri Lanka's finishers may have to work even harder towards the close. With one of the most aggressive top threes in the tournament, Sri Lanka have banked on sustained hitting during the Powerplay, and Munaweera must play his part for the strategy to prove worthwhile.
Saturday's match shapes as the biggest test of Munaweera's career. Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel have bloodied more hardened men than he, and a nervous start to international cricket and an awkward first dismissal cannot have boosted Munaweera's confidence greatly. Moreover, South Africa will have studied him closely in their team meetings. They will know he is, at present, over-reliant on boundaries to make a score. They will know he cuts and pulls well but drives poorly. They will endeavour to keep him on strike, knowing he has trouble rotating it, and the customary dose of newbie-abuse will no doubt be gleefully given as well.
"It's always going to be tough, especially when you're an opening batsman," captain Mahela Jayawardene said of the trial awaiting Munaweera. "It's a great experience for him to play one of the two best bowling combinations in the game right now. He has Dilshan at the other end to guide him and a couple of other senior batsmen to follow."
Not only will Munaweera's mettle be tested by bowlers much faster and capable of generating more bounce than he has encountered at home and on A-team tours, he will also be playing on a foreign surface. The Bloomfield Cricket Club pitch he has thrived on has a reputation for being low and slow. Both pitches in Hambantota so far have had plenty of bounce and carry, and South Africa's seamers will squeeze every inch of movement available as well.
It is perhaps unfair to expect Munaweera to pass the test with flying colours, given his inexperience and the gulf between domestic and top-level cricket he must learn to bridge in the next few weeks. A young Mahela Jayawardene was among the most complete batsmen Sri Lanka's system ever produced, and even he was forced to make drastic improvements in his early years to compete against the finest.
"For me Wasim Akram was the guy I struggled against early on because of his quality and variations," Jayawardene said. "Every time I played against him early I struggled early on. Every time after the game he would pat me on my back and say keep learning, and that's what I did. It was a good experience for me. I was one of the victims of his hat-trick early on. After 12 years of international cricket he started getting hat-tricks against Sri Lanka. It was tough playing him."
One of Sri Lanka's biggest selection regrets has been the meandering career of Chamara Kapugedara. No one can doubt the batsman's talent, having seen it in spades in domestic cricket as well as in patches for the national team, but perhaps his failure to grow into a match-winner was hampered by inconsistency in selection and a tendency to bat him out of position. So far Munaweera far has avoided that fate.
"The good thing is that he's got a free hand. When you have a youngster coming into the set-up, there's not much pressure on you. You just go out there and enjoy yourself and back yourself to play your game. That's what is exciting about young cricketers coming in. We're just going to give him the license to go out there and enjoy himself."
A poor outing against South Africa's pace may not warrant Munaweera's exclusion at the Super Eights stage, but it may earn a him a reputation for being a soft target. He will be watched, analysed, and attacks will formulate plans specifically for him in the coming weeks. It is a different world of pressure at the top, and Munaweera will get a healthy taste of that on Saturday. How he responds in that game and the matches to follow may not shape his career, but having provided Munaweera with the best chance to succeed, Sri Lanka will hope their investment pays off.
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Sri Lanka