Sangakkara says spin will play a role
In almost 30 years as a Test-playing nation Sri Lanka have gone from minnows to maestros and, in the last year, halfway back. They have begun a tough tour of South Africa by suffering injuries to key players in the lead-up to the first Test, which starts on December 15 in Centurion. Kumar Sangakkara, Sri Lanka's second-highest run-getter in Tests, is one of the players in doubt for the first Test after he split the webbing on his right hand during Sri Lanka's drawn warm-up match against a South Africa Invitation XI in Benoni. He does expect to play a part in the series, though, and said the team would prove a point to themselves and their opposition.
"We are in a transition period and are coming to terms with new players coming into the side, especially younger ones," Sangakkara said. "We know where we stand as a group. It's important for us to understand that and work with what we have."
In recent times, Sri Lankan cricket has been run by interim committees appointed by the country's sports minister. The most recent of these interim committees was dissolved in November with board elections set to be held in January next year. Sangakkara said the changes at the administrative level did take a toll on the team. "There has been quite a big change in the sense of personnel coming in and out really quickly. Once we come to an understanding of how we want to build in the future as a side, we will have a lot more settled intent and a settled kind of feel to us."
For now, their intent lies in putting on a competitive performance against South Africa. Their tour began with a rain-hit warm-up match in which openers Tharanga Paranavitana and Tillakaratne Dilshan found form, and Mahela Jayawardene was allowed some time in the middle. Although a shortened tour match was not ideal, Sangakkara said the team were relatively happy with what they got out of the match, particularly from a bowling perspective.
The Sri Lanka attack was depleted when Nuwan Pradeep tore his right hamstring after bowling just ten balls on the second day in Benoni, but Dilhara Fernando and Rangana Herath enjoyed fairly successful spells with the ball. "The benefit was in getting out there, getting used to conditions, understanding what lengths to bowl to try to get wickets and really coming to grips with the challenges South African wickets are going to present for the bowlers," Sangakkara said.
Since the retirements of Chaminda Vaas and Muttiah Muralitharan, Sri Lanka's bowling has been a major concern but Sangakkara hopes that this tour will help the team move on from that. He said they should focus on finding new talent to take them forward. "You get one Murali and that's it. It's important for us to come to terms with that mentally. We are not looking for the next Murali. We are looking for the next best spinner to come and win games for us. He might not take 800 wickets but I think the guys we have on tour are good enough to do a job for us."
In Benoni, Herath played both a containing and an attacking role, and most importantly was successful on a surface that offered no help for spinners. It is that quality that Sangakkara says makes Herath a top-class competitor. "Spin has come to play a major part in all formats of the game, much more than ever before. If you are a good spinner you should know and be able to work on how to take wickets on pitches that don't assist you."
Although Sri Lanka have been warned against going into a Test in South Africa with two frontline spinners, they may be forced to because of the deluge of injuries that have hit their fast-bowling department. Ajantha Mendis, famous for his variations, is the other spinner in the squad, and Sangakkara said Mendis would have to concentrate on accuracy rather than magic balls. "It's nice to have that x-factor. But Test cricket is about being disciplined, bowling in the right areas, ball after ball, over after over, and exerting pressure on the opposition."
Sri Lanka remain hopeful that one of either Nuwan Kulasekara or Dhammika Prasad will be fit enough to rejoin the tour, and perform a containing role. With five injured fast bowlers, Sri Lanka have had to answer questions about the fitness of their quicks and Sangakkara agreed that they have to work on their stamina.
"The fast bowlers must start working on their bowling loads. They have to get their bodies used to the load that international cricket demands of you."
The series is one that many expect to be decided by the gulf between the two teams' pace attacks but Sangakkara said there could be more to it than just that. "South Africa has always depended on pure pace and skill with the ball when it comes to fast bowling. But they've got a good spinner in [Imran] Tahir. It will be interesting to see whether the wickets will assist them [spinners] enough for them to break open games."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent