Dilshan not cowed by South Africa challenge
South Africa's media have not gone as far as Martin Johnson did when he labelled England a team that "can't bat, can't bowl, can't field," but their sizing up of Sri Lanka has come close. From questioning whether the batsmen will be able to stand up, let alone score runs, on green pitches, to wondering if the bowlers will pose a threat at all, they clearly see Sri Lanka as small fries ahead of the upcoming series.
The only thing that has escaped debate has been Sri Lanka's fielding, and rightly so. During a four-hour practice session on Tuesday, Sri Lanka spent close to a quarter of their time on fielding drills. They took slip catches hit off the hardest of edges, ran madly for skied shots and one of them stood on one foot while the ball was lobbed to him, over and over again.
It was a session that showed that Sri Lanka are not leaving anything to chance. They have come to South Africa knowing it will be tough and are ready to discover new methods to survive in a place that is, to almost all of them, entirely unknown. They are well aware that they are not expected to cause an upset but their desire to spring a few surprises has not dimmed.
It's worth remembering that this is a team that maintained a dominant home record for a period of time, in which they beat Australia, England and South Africa. Their away trips have not yielded similar success but Sri Lanka are convinced that the tide will turn, as it has for them in one-day cricket. Even though they are currently in a slump that has seen them stack up four Test defeats and ten draws since July last year, Tillakaratne Dilshan, their captain, believes the team is already getting better.
"We made a few mistakes in the last series against Pakistan but we have discussed what went wrong. Everyone is looking forward to this series," Dilshan said. "After losing the second Test against Pakistan, we came back very strongly in the last match and played good cricket."
Sri Lanka were hampered by rain as they pushed for a win against Pakistan in the third Test of their series in the UAE, played in Sharjah. They had Pakistan 87 for 4 chasing 255 when they ran out of time, and could not level the series. They suffered 1-0 defeats in their two series before that, in England and at home to Australia. This is arguably a tougher series than any of those three, but Dilshan hopes his depleted squad can rise to the occasion.
He did seem slightly perturbed by the green nature of the pitch in Centurion, which is going to have bowlers more hopeful of wickets than when they see Chris Martin at the crease. "It looks good for the fast bowlers," Dilshan said, in a tone that makes it a candidate for understatement of the year. "All the fast bowlers can really enjoy this wicket."
Instead of dwell on the problems the surface could pose to Sri Lanka's batsmen, Dilshan preferred to talk about the possibilities it presents his inexperienced attack with. He accepted that South Africa have a threatening pace attack, but said his own pack were not far behind. "We also have a few young fast bowlers. Dilhara [Fernando] is experienced, [Chanaka] Welegedara has done really well for us. It will be good for the bowlers to take on this challenge."
He did not dwell on the injuries that have hit Sri Lanka's squad, not even the one that may keep star batsman Kumar Sangakkara out of the first Test. Sangakkara batted in the nets on Wednesday and Dilshan said that could be key to taking a call on whether he plays.
The two teams have not played each other in a Test since 2006 but Dilshan said that did not mean they did not know about each other. "Everyone has played everyone during the IPL. With technology everyone knows what everyone else is doing."
Some may think Sri Lanka have walked into a slaughter house, but they have converted quiet confidence into surprises before, and Dilshan seemed to mean it when he said his team were looking forward to the challenge. "There is self-belief that everyone can do their job for the team. Everyone says South Africa is the favourite but if we can play our brand of cricket we can beat any team in any conditions."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent