Stiff challenge for openers on South African tracks
If Sri Lankans have nightmares, there's a good chance what they dream of is 22 yards long and green. And the chance of that object appearing in real life soon is imminent.
The Kingsmead pitch will likely be another seamer-friendly surface, with bounce that could end up rivalling a trampoline. The humidity will ensure there is swing in the air and South Africa's hungry pack of bowlers will be on the hunt for another early finish. One thing no Sri Lankan wants to be right now is a batsman. On tour. In South Africa.
The concept is hackneyed, over-written and over-spoken about, but in the context of this series, it's worth repeating. Batsmen from the subcontinent struggle when they play on foreign soil. Apart from Sachin Tendulkar, who has amassed over 600 runs here, most of them find it difficult to adjust to the extra bounce.
Pace and bounce combined can be as lethal as fast cars and alcohol and when you add a quality attack to that. Batsmen play a game of Survivor far more serious than the reality television show of the same name. Since 1995, sub-continent pairings have put on significantly less runs than per wicket, confirming they face greater difficulty in South Africa than players from England and Australia.
"South Africa is probably the toughest place in the world to bat," Russell Domingo, South Africa's assistant coach, said. "Especially for a top-order player." Boeta Dippenaar, who batted in the top four on 19 occasions in a Test match at home - half of the 38 matches he played - agreed. "It's definitely the most difficult place to face the new ball because it moves sideways at greater pace and it bounces." Dippenaar averaged 25.54 at home and 30.14 when playing away.
Recent statistics prove the pair correct. From 2005 to 2009, South Africa was a perilous place for batsmen. The average runs-per-wicket was the lowest in the world at 29.94. In Pakistan, it was more than 43 and in India, 38.29. The same applied to the average opening stand which was just 24.54 in South Africa and more than 40 in Pakistan, West Indies and England. No other country's average was below 33.
The mid-point of that period - 2007 - was particularly bad for opening batsmen. That year Pakistan, New Zealand and West Indies toured South Africa. All three visiting sides lost their series. In the early part of the year, the highest opening stand was 48, between Mohammad Hafeez and Imran Farhat in Centurion. South Africa's highest was 30, which Graeme Smith and Dippenaar shared in the second match of that series.
By late December, Chris Gayle and Daren Ganga had put on 98 for the first wicket in Port Elizabeth, but South Africa were not able to muster a first-wicket partnership of any substance. In that year, the theory surrounding subcontinent batsmen did not hold true, because all batsmen, including the home country's own, were unable to survive for too long against the new-ball.
Since then, in series against Bangladesh, England and India, things have become easier for the men who bat at No. 1 and 2. The England series had two half-century opening stands, both by England pairs. South Africa's highest was 36 in that series, when Ashwell Prince opened with Smith. The Centurion Test had all four opening partnerships broken with the score still in single-figures.
Last summer, against India, two century and two half-century opening partnerships materialised. Both teams notched up a century stand each in Centurion - proof that the pitch is not quite the snake pit it seems. Kingsmead may also appear worse than it is. Only once in the last two seasons had an opening partnerships ended in single figures but it has still been a difficult place to collect runs.
"It's got a lot more pace and bounce in it but it's also gotten slower over time and taken a bit more spin," Graeme Smith said. "We have to adapt more; that's something that's crucial when you play here in Durban."
Although Smith describes the Durban of recent times as "unpredictable," when looked at over a long period of time, it is not that erratic. Apart from day one, the Durban pitch can flatten out to be a batsman's dream - but they have to last until then. Typically, the script is similar to most South African pitches which are traditionally at their batting best on day three.
"Middle-order players will find it much easier to bat here," Domingo said. The opposite is true for the subcontinent, where pitches usually start out fairly placid and deteriorate as the match goes on, bringing the spinners into play and wreaking havoc through the middle order. The difference in approach required to play in the two venues may be why batsmen from the subcontinent struggle in South Africa.
So, what does it take to be a competent opener on a South African strip? Tillakaratne Dilshan, the Sri Lanka captain, suggests more time to adjust. "If we had got a couple of warm-up games that it would have been good," he said. "When we go to England or even here in South Africa we need to play a couple of warm-up matches." Domingo suggests a simple-sounding solution. "You have to play as straight as possible," he said.
Domingo said there isn't much else to it and also indicated further studies on how to succeed on green tops may not be necessary because the hosts have not specifically asked for seamer-friendly pitches. Still, it's an open secret that local groundsmen will want to maximise their team's advantage and will steer away from preparing generic pitches. They almost expect to get criticised for something: too flat, too sporty, too lifeless, too much life, too many cracks, too much dust, too brown, too green, too-much-like-hard-work-to-knuckle-down-and-play-cricket on, and so they'd rather create surfaces the home team can capitalise on.
Dippenaar admitted that this school of thought will provide a contest between bat and ball that is "probably not even", a thought that will not help Sri Lanka sleep any easier. Perhaps, all they can do is take the attitude of former West Indies fast bowler Wes Hall, who was asked about the surfaces on the 1957 tour of England. "It is the prerogative of the home country to prepare the type of pitch they want," he said. "We will play them in the car park if that is what they want."
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent