Green Centurion pitch awaits teams
One of sport's most important lessons is that looks can be deceiving. Hashim Amla's prominent backlift was believed to be an insurmountable stumbling block on his quest to be a successful international batsman. More than 4,000 Test runs later, it's seldom criticised. Lovers of the five-day game will hope this logic applies to pitches too, because at first glance the Centurion strip threatens a match that will end in fewer.
Without any mincing of words, the pitch is green. It is not a strip of brown with patches of green, it is pretty much entirely green. Bowlers will drool at the sight of it, batsmen will quiver, but the groundsman Hilbert Smit, will nod wisely, knowing there is something more to it than meets the eye.
"People see it as more of a danger than it really is," Smit told ESPNcricinfo. "It's quite thick grass at the top, not thick, patchy grass that creates seam movement. We've also prepared it to be quite hard underneath but the harder we can get it, the better."
While Smit acknowledged that he is preparing a surface which will aid pace and bounce, he said that his first priority was to create a result pitch, that will see the game end "late or on day four or after that." He also steered away from reinforcing that it is a bowl-first surface and said that the captains will have to think further than just day one and should be seduced by first impressions.
"South Africa will have to decide if they want to bowl first and bat fourth, where they will face a spinner on a pitch that may take turn or if they can see off the Sri Lankan seamers for a while on the first day. Sri Lanka will have to decide if they want to bowl first, where their spinners won't come into play or if they should wait to bowl last," Smit said. "The more I can confuse the captains, the better."
Under clearing skies, with minimal rain forecast, the pitch is likely to lose some of its nastiness by morning and ease out as the match goes on. Still, Graeme Smith could not hide his grin when asked about it although he did manage to temper his response. "It could be interesting, especially day one, it might do a little bit," he said. His counterpart, Tillakaratne Dilshan, said this was "definitely the greenest pitch" he had ever seen in South Africa.
South Africa is synonymous with pace-friendly pitches and they crank it up a notch when they are due a visit from a sub-continental side. Most of the time, it has worked in their favour. Recently, though, it has worked for and against them, with bowlers from both teams benefiting from the conditions. Smith said although the teams are looking forward to exploiting their own conditions, South Africa will not get overly enthusiastic because green tops have served both them, and their opposition well.
"We know that South African conditions can turn a seamer with a limited record into a seamer with a very good record," Smith said, "So, we have respect for the conditions we are playing on and the challenges we face in the next few weeks."
Instead, Smith said he will encourage his bowlers to show maturity in the way they approach their tasks. "Control is a word we can use, more in mindset more than anything else," he said. "Our bowlers must not to get too emotional, must execute their plans well and be aggressive in the right mindset. The attitude with which we bowl is going to be very important."
South Africa's batsmen will also have to prepare for an assault from Sri Lanka's attack, who may relish the chance to play in favourable conditions. "It's a different challenge for our batters. We've come off a series [against Australia] where the four bowlers we faced were bowling at over 145kph," Smith said. "Now, we will face different challenges."
Sri Lanka are expected to rely on accuracy and persistence to create breakthroughs and Dale Steyn said it is a strategy, that if employed properly, could be successful. "When we played Australia, we had a guy like Shane Watson who put the ball in the right areas and he made it really difficult. He wasn't bowling anywhere near the pace of [Mitchell] Johnson or [Peter] Siddle but he got a lot of wickets," Steyn said. "And that's what these guys can offer. We're quite wary of that."
Although Sri Lanka have suffered a series of injuries to their pack of fast bowlers, but the rest of the attack, who are largely unknown to South Africa, could prove to be their X-factor. "The fact that we haven't seen them makes them dangerous," Hashim Amla said. "It will be a bit more of a challenge for us."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent