Invitation side will test Sri Lanka - Vincent Barnes
South Africa's Invitation XI will play a vital role in sizing up Sri Lanka ahead of the three-Test series. The teams have not played each other in the longest version of the game since 2006 and Sri Lanka have been strangers to South African shores since 2002, resulting in a degree of unfamiliarity between the two sides.
Sri Lanka's obvious strength lies in their batting line-up, headlined by two former captains, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene. However, they the likes of Dinesh Chandimal and Dimuth Karunaratne, who are awaiting their first Test caps, and Kaushal Silva and Lahiru Thirimanne, will have to rise to the challenge of supporting them consistently.
With batting being talked up as the key to Sri Lankan success by their captain Tillakaratne Dilshan, it will be crucial for them to learn how to play on South African pitches, against South African bowlers, quickly. "The key for Sri Lanka will be adjusting to the conditions and the pace and bounce of the pitches," Vincent Barnes, Invitation XI coach, told ESPNcricinfo.
Barnes, who was South Africa's bowling coach for eight years, will also be keenly watching Sri Lanka's attack, which is almost unknown to South Africa. The only familiar face is Dilhara Fernando, who toured South Africa nine years ago. The other seamers, Chanaka Welegedara, Nuwan Pradeep, Thisara Perera and Angelo Matthews have only played 36 Tests between them, none against South Africa.
With South Africa expected to prepare seamer-friendly pitches, Sri Lanka's bowlers may be looking forward to the prospect of helpful conditions but Barnes warned that they will also have to make adjustments. "When bowlers play on fairly unresponsive pitches most of the time and they get to South Africa, they tend to bowl too short," he said. "They will have to work on their lengths."
Sri Lanka's bowlers' first taste of a South African surface will be on Friday in Benoni, traditionally one of the more passive pitches in the country. Barnes expects it to play in the usual way, although it has shown signs of defying that recently. "The pitch looked good," Barnes said. "There was a match earlier in the season when the Titans were bowled out cheaply and the pitch had a lot of grass on it, but there is a lot less now."
That means a repeat of the South Africa A game against Australia in Potchefstroom last month which ended in less than three days is unlikely. Barnes was in charge of the South Africa A side during that game. Although Australia won comfortably, Barnes was satisfied that his team had succeeded in making the visitors feel uncomfortable and gave them minimum time in the middle.
He would like the invitation side to replicate some of those tactics. "That's our job, we are not going to make it easy for them, we're not here to give Sri Lanka glory," he said. The team consists of only five members of the XI that played against Australia because of a fixture clash. The final of South Africa's domestic one-day cup, which will be played between the Cobras and the Warriors on Friday, meant that the selectors were forced to pick from a smaller group of players. They also chose not to include any of the members of the Test squad, a different tactic to the one they employed against Australia.
Then, Vernon Philander forced his way into the starting XI with fiery spells, Marchant de Lange announced his presence with a five-wicket haul and Alviro Petersen railed against being dropped with a fighting century. "The two stand-outs from that match were Alviro and Marchant and look where they are now," Barnes said. Petersen was recalled and de Lange has been handed his maiden call-up.
This time, a different team has been put together. The only players on the fringes of the national team are left-arm spinner Paul Harris, wicket-keeper Thami Tsolekile, two players who Barnes said, "will want to use this so that the selectors will take notice."
For the rest, Barnes sees it as a way for the country's next tier of players to make an impact. "It is a wonderful opportunity for them to play world-class opposition," he said. "Gary [Kirsten] told the guys a story about how he was given the chance to play in an invitation side against India because of injury to someone and he did not look back since then."
Barnes is also a national selector and by being part of games like these can assess players when they are moved a step above franchise level. "I have watched a lot of domestic cricket this season and I have been able to identify who the really nuggety, gritty players are," he said. One of those is Knights' batsman Dean Elgar who has been a regular in A teams and invitation XIs for the past three seasons, "He is pushing hard for a place in the national team, there is a queue and he probably just has to wait for his turn, but he is pushing hard."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent