South Africa v Sri Lanka, 1st ODI, Paarl January 10, 2012

Shorter format, smaller gulf

After the wild swings of fortune in the Tests, the one-dayers should be a more tight contest

Shorter formats of the game are said to be cricket's levellers and the premise will likely hold true for the five-ODI series between South Africa and Sri Lanka. Their three Tests were played on a wildly swinging pendulum which started firmly in South Africa' half, veered violently the other way after Sri Lanka's win in Durban and then returned to its original position at the end of the series.

Across 50 overs, the teams are expected to be more evenly matched. Sri Lanka have explosive openers, a toe-crusher of a bowler and two accomplished spinners, South Africa have a feisty captain cum batsman cum wicketkeeper, a shrewd offspinner and a potent pace attack. Although few will argue that there is anything more absorbing than Test cricket, many will agree that the one-day shootouts between these two sides will be compelling and competitive.

The cricket is expected to be played in fast-forward. Albie Morkel said he hopes for a series of "highlights." The schedule will add to the helter-skelter vibe. Five matches in 12 days allows little time for breathing room or over analysis which will ensure that momentum cannot stay with anyone for too long.

The playing fields will also do their bit to even the contest. Paarl, East London, Bloemfontein and Kimberley are this country's cricketing backwaters. The national team rarely plays there. In the recent past the only teams they are willing to host at these stadiums are Bangladesh or Zimbabwe, teams that the administrators believe they could beat on a surface as unfamiliar as the moon. To throw Sri Lanka into that mix is playing with fire.

In rarely visited venues, where surfaces are likely to veer on the slow, low, turning side, South Africa could find themselves on shaky ground. Take the simple fact that Sri Lanka have played more matches at Boland Park, the venue of the first match, than South Africa. Sri Lanka have visited the ground three times, compared with South Africa's two. The last time the hosts played in Paarl was in 2002, against Pakistan.

Despite that, South Africa chose not to train in Paarl but to hold their session at Newlands, closer to the team's base. They will only see the Paarl pitch a few hours before the start of play giving no credence to their ongoing problems with adjustment at various venues. AB de Villiers said the rushed nature of the tour swayed them to stay closer to home, so to speak, as most of the squad only convened after a round of domestic matches finished at the weekend.

"We felt it was important not to have a five- or six-hour session because if you take into account travel time it becomes that long," de Villiers said. "We'll be going to Paarl a little bit earlier so we can see the pitch but we know that it is usually a bit hotter and the pitch is normally quite dry."

de Villiers even said the conditions were almost sub-continental, something that Sri Lankan ears would have received with great interest. The rest of the matches will follow a similar trend and Sri Lanka will not have to fear the bouncy pitches they were forced to deal with in the Test matches until they get to Wanderers on January 22.

As far as contests go, this one has no great importance in the wider context. Should South Africa win, it will give them a fitting way to end their home summer. Should Sri Lanka, it could be the start of a new beginning for them and a rare and significant achievement away from home.

Given the somewhat dangling importance of the series, which fits neither here nor there, it could be equally easy for both teams to fall into the trap of watching the series whizz past while not being able to control its direction. South Africa will have to be particularly careful of avoiding that.

With no World Cup for the next three years and the major focus on capturing the No. 1 Test title and, in the immediate future, competing for the World T20, it would be all too easy for them to start living in the next few months and forgetting about the now. They have chalked up one-day series wins at home fairly easily in the last decade and they have a tendency to get flippant when they are allowed to. Gary Kirsten and AB de Villiers will have relatively bigger tests in their time, such as the forthcoming tours to England and Australia, but this could be one of their trickier ones. How they handle it will set the tone for a busy year and will give an indication of the route they intend the team to ride on in future.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent