A tale of two SSC Tests
Sri Lanka is known as the pearl of the Indian Ocean, the island of serendipity, and has been labelled "a nirvana for beach lovers" by Lonely Planet, but Makhaya Ntini knows differently. "Let me tell you, that place is not a playground," he said.
You may think the harsh assessment stems from the narrow escape he had eight years ago when he left the Liberty Plaza Shopping Centre minutes before the bomb blast that prompted South Africa's withdrawal from their tour, but that incident is not what colours Ntini's memory of the country. Instead it is what happened two weeks before.
Ntini was part of the South African team that spent 13 hours and two minutes on the field at the SSC, watching Sri Lanka's batsmen (read Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene) rack up what Ntini counted as "700,000 runs". It was actually 756, but it contained a world-record 624-run partnership that still stands today.
"It was just flat. There was nothing in that wicket. Just nothing," Ntini remembered. "Frustration is an understatement. Every time we looked at the scorecard, it was as though they were 10 or 20 runs to get to another milestone - 400, 500, 600. There was no end."
Although South Africa were seasoned international travellers by then, they were still found wanting on surfaces that lacked pace and bounce and took turn. They lost both Tests in the series, sending them back to the starting blocks as far as subcontinental strategy was concerned. The forgotten fact is that 13 years earlier South Africa seemed to be in a better place in that regard.
In 1993 they made their first trip to Sri Lanka, which included the first Tests they would play in Asia. They weren't wary, just unsure. So much so that they may not have realised they were probably favourites. Sri Lanka were also relative newcomers to the Test arena, and South Africa travelled with a full-strength side, unlike in 2006, when they were depleted.
"We were so new to world cricket, we had no idea what to expect there," Brett Schultz said. "It was a real experience, even though we were limited with what we could do because of the civil war. We stayed at one hotel in Colombo for about five weeks, so there was a bit of cabin fever. The heat and humidity combined with the pitches was the most different thing for us."
Some things never change and the current South African squad has also cited the weather as a challenge, although they are much better equipped to deal with it than teams of the past. "Things weren't that scientific then," Schultz said. "We didn't think beyond getting as much fluid in as we could. I would drink 12 to 15 litres of water a day, and more on match days. After every over, I'd drink a 500ml bottle."
He bowled 124.1 overs in the three Tests, which means he drank about 62 litres in the time he was on the field. It must have helped because his returns exceeded all expectations. He took 20 wickets at 16.30 to lead the wicket-takers' list across both sides, and his nine-for in the second Test, at the SSC, was instrumental in South Africa's win.
The left-hander's angle gave Schultz an advantage, but he remembered another. "We tried to use the pitch in a way that the ball would get scuffed up," he said. "At first we were a little surprised by how quickly the ball got old. We'd had about ten overs of the new ball and then that was it. But after another 20 or so overs, we could get it reversing and that was important."
Morne Morkel has already indicated that South Africa will try to make use of that art again. "Reverse swing is going to be key - we have to get the ball to reverse quite quickly and get the top order under pressure with that kind of thing," he said before the team left for Sri Lanka. Morkel may not be the likeliest man to do that, but he spent the IPL picking the brain of Wasim Akram, who was his bowling coach at Kolkata Knight Riders, for "different ideas" about bowling in the subcontinent, some of which he may impart to Dale Steyn for use.
As Steyn demonstrated late last year in the UAE, and more recently against Australia in Port Elizabeth this March, he can make the most of a moving ball. He is also the only member of South Africa's attack to have played a Test in Sri Lanka and may want to revisit the 2006 tour in preparation for this one, particularly when it comes to patience.
"He learnt tough lessons on that tour," Ntini said. "At that time he was recognised as one of the youngsters who could really be a star for South Africa, and when you are in that position you want to show how quick you are, even if that does not work."
Steyn discovered that express pace was not the best option in those 13 hours at the SSC. Ntini, who was leading the attack in Shaun Pollock's absence, convinced him to try a different approach, using unwavering concentration, discipline and the odd surprise.
Although South Africa were tiring and even appeared to let the game drift, Ntini said he believed the pack could not stop hunting for wickets because if they did, it would only worsen their plight. "We had no choice. We had to keep trying to get wickets because otherwise they would just make us stay out there more. They showed us that they were not going to declare and we knew if we bowled negatively, we would not get wickets, so we just kept trying to get one of them - Sanga or Mahela - out."
Ntini was targeting Jayawardene in particular because "he was closing in on Brian Lara's record and I didn't want a West Indian record overturned". Eventually Andre Nel accounted for Jayawardene, beating him for lack of bounce.
Sri Lanka declared when Jayawardene was dismissed, to give South Africa's bowlers much-needed feet-up time while their batsmen fought it out. They batted for ten hours and 20 minutes but it was not enough. "What made it worse was that afterwards, Kumar and Mahela were given cars by Peugeot," Ntini joked. "We were the ones who needed cars after the amount of time we spent out there."
Sri Lankan surfaces have changed considerably from that tour. These days they offer a little something - because the country has its own pace arsenal and because they can no longer call on Muttiah Muralitharan, who Schultz remembers "bowling from one end all day" to win matches single-handedly. That alone will make the South Africa squad more comfortable on this trip but there is another reason Ntini thinks they can expect to have a less arduous time than in 2006.
"This time they are going to have an option of at least two spinners. We had just one spinner with us and it made it difficult," Ntini said. "With two guys, they can have them either concentrating on one side with the quicks from the other, or bowling together to give the seamers a bit of a rest."
In 2006, South Africa's only spinner was Nicky Boje, who managed five wickets in the series. His main job was to hold an end, and his economy rate of 3.23 was evidence of that. In 1993, South Africa had Pat Symcox and Clive Eksteen, who provided a mix of attack and defence. Their returns were hidden in the shadows of Schultz's success, and Eksteen only played one match, but having the choice seemed to reassure.
On this tour, South Africa have gone one better. They have three spin candidates, although only two are likely to feature in the starting XI. Imran Tahir will be tasked with taking wickets and JP Duminy will be made to do a holding job. Dane Piedt lurks in the wings, with the ability to do both, and while it will be tempting to play him, South Africa will not want to sacrifice a seamer.
Schultz thinks it's a good dilemma to have because it will keep the quicks thinking. "Test cricket is about strategy, getting the slips in place, knowing the lines to bowl. If you can get that right, even though this is not an easy tour, strange things can happen," he said.
Strange like South Africa's relationship with the SSC. It holds both their best and worst memories of touring Sri Lanka - the win in 1993 and the toil in 2006. Maybe 2014 is the time to turn it into their own playground.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent