South Africa in Sri Lanka 2013 July 19, 2013

An uncommon bilateral series

As Sri Lanka's next ODI assignment in a year of Test avoidance rolls around, against South Africa, fans may be beginning to feel more than a touch of limited-overs fatigue. Neither team has played a Test since March and there have been no major triumphs for either team in ODIs either.

The fact that this tour could have been so much better, had the Tests not been postponed to make way for a now kaput Twenty20 tournament, will make the bilateral series all the more tough to swallow. Moreover, with the battle royale unfolding in the UK, viewers are left with a very tempting alternative.

However, this match-up does have a little about it that may help distinguish it from the glut of the modern-day limited-overs sludge.

It's not often that South Africa play Sri Lanka, particularly away from home. Their last ODI series here goes back as far as 2004, when a team featuring Lance Klusener, Shaun Pollock and Nicky Boje, lost 5 -0. A three-ODI series between the two sides was planned in 2006, but was cancelled due to bad weather. The touring captain AB de Villiers has not played a single ODI in Sri Lanka, in an international career spanning eight years.

The sides are well matched on paper. Neither team is a world beater in the limited-overs format, but can be formidable when their moods and conditions align. In the Champions Trophy in June, both teams were beaten comprehensively in the semi-finals, which once again prompted everyone to believe that while the teams have the skill and determination to consistently find themselves at the sharp end of tournaments, they lack the mental steel to close out results in high-pressure encounters. In fact, had there been more riding on this series, it might have even been billed as a "choke-off."

There is also a mutual onus on developing young talent. South Africa have arrived without Jacques Kallis, Dale Steyn and Graeme Smith, in an effort to find the right combination and rhythm ahead of the 2015 World Cup. Men like Chris Morris and Aaron Phangiso have the chance to prove they should be part of South Africa's long-term plans, and others like Rory Kleinveldt and David Miller must now add consistency to the qualities that has seen them emerge at the top level.

For Sri Lanka, the series will provide another opportunity for the younger players to reassure their fans that the side will not slide into doldrums once Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Tillakaratne Dilshan retire. All three seniors privately hope to play the next World Cup, but they cannot hope to end their careers with a major title unless the remaining batsmen become better than just adequate support players. The Champions Trophy might have been a disaster for Sri Lanka without the trio's efforts in England, as none of the remaining batsmen could manage more than 74 runs during the tournament.

Dinesh Chandimal and Lahiru Thirimanne, who have been made captain and vice-captain respectively for the first two games, will have the most to prove in this series. Their talent, particularly in Tests, is beyond doubt but neither is yet to repay the faith that has been afforded to them in the shorter formats. South Africa boast one of the world's finest attacks but their inexperience in Sri Lankan conditions, and the absence of Steyn, will make them a slightly less intimidating prospect, and Sri Lanka's middle order cannot complain that they are out of their depth.

Sri Lanka and South Africa thrive in conditions that are almost diametrically opposite to the other's favoured stomping grounds. South Africa may probably be slightly at ease, given the pace and bounce in the Sri Lankan pitches, but they must also be wary of the dustbowls at the Premadasa and in Pallekele.

There has been some rain at both venues in the build-up to the series but in the past Sri Lanka's groundsmen have always managed to maintain a turning track despite the weather. If they have done so again, South Africa will find it that much more difficult to turn around an abysmal ODI record on the island.

There should be no pretensions that this series is anything other than yet another forgettable bilateral tie, robbed of much of its context because of the removal of the Tests. But for both sides, it will be another crucial step taken on their journey to Australia and New Zealand in 2015.

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. He tweets here