Sri Lanka v South Africa, 7th match, Champions Trophy October 23, 2006

Expect a close call

Graeme Smith and Shaun Pollock can take heart from the surface on view © Getty Images

Graeme Smith might just be enjoying himself a little more in the state of Gujarat than he did in Mumbai. The Sardar Patel Stadium, for starters, resembles more closely the stadia he is used to playing at back home - it's big, has colourful bucket seats as a backdrop, the outfield is a lush green. And most importantly, the pitch also had just a tinge of green on it - not the kind of grass that would make it a seaming bunsen, but the kind that would hold it together and ensure that the top didn't come off, as it did when South Africa went down to New Zealand in Mumbai.

Smith was livid after that match, lambasting the pitch after a game of two halves was easily won by New Zealand. When he appeared for his pre-match press conference in Ahmedabad, looking forward to the game against Sri Lanka, he was far more relaxed, and even smiled once or twice, as he fielded the usual questions. But then, that has been the nature of this tournament.

The format has made it such that each team needs at least two wins to be reasonably assured of making it to the semifinal. With one loss and two games to go, South Africa have no uncertainty left - they just must win, to stay in the competition. Sri Lanka, who already have one win, against New Zealand, but lost to Pakistan, can't breathe any easier. In that sense, the manner in which results have unfolded has meant that this tournament has virtual quarterfinals, even if the organisers did not design it thus.

If you're a betting man, though, this is a tough one to call. Of the 43 times the teams have come across each other, Sri Lanka have won 21, South Africa 20, with one tie and one no result. "I think both teams are strong at home. We're very strong at home and Sri Lanka are a tough team to beat in their country," says Smith, who obviously has studied the numbers in some detail, although he's wrong when he says, "When it comes to neutral venues you'll probably find Sri Lanka are slightly more comfortable in the subcontinent." When it comes to playing at home, both are kings - in Sri Lanka the scoreline is 9-1 to the home side, in South Africa, 12-4 to the hosts. But in the neutral countries in the subcontinent, South Africa have a clean 4-0 record.

"We know we can beat them. We're a quality one-day team," said Smith. "You don't get to being No. 2 in the world without being able to beat quality teams in their own backyard. The key tomorrow is going out there, relaxing and playing the kind of cricket we know we're capable of." The kind of cricket South Africa play best is an aggressive brand of cricket. They come very hard at the opposition, with strokemakers at both ends of the innings sandwiching some serious grafters. Herschelle Gibbs and Smith can dish it out as well as any to begin with, and Justin Kemp and Mark Boucher are around for late heroics. Jacques Kallis provides the meat and potatoes in the middle, as do Boeta Dippenaar, and AB de Villiers.

But all the potential in the world, and the planning in the nets, can come undone against a form team playing smart cricket. And this is precisely what Sri Lanka are at the moment. The flexibility they have with the batting is hard to match - virtually all of their top six are in form. While the likes of Upul Tharanga may only be enthusiastically finding his feet in international cricket at the moment, the rest are all veterans. Kumar Sangakkara, in some ways the lynchpin of the batting line-up, is a much under-rated cricketer, outshone as he is by the pretty batting of Mahela Jayawardene or the brutal hitting of Sanath Jayasuriya. That you find little room - or need - to mention Marvan Atapattu, tells you just how well they are doing in the batting department.

With the ball, Sri Lanka are a slightly two-geared team. Chaminda Vaas, with his curling induckers, poses great danger at the start of the innings. He's like the snakebite - the sharp stunning of the prey as fangs sink in - then the spinners come on to crush, strangle and choke the breath out of the innings, leaving the innings dead. If you can escape that early bite, though, survival becomes a whole lot easier. South Africa need to attack, but do so sensibly, or it could all end very badly for the team ranked No. 2 in ODIs in the world.

Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo