Amla focussed on ODIs before Test captaincy
Hashim Amla, who will lead South Africa for the first time in the two Tests in Sri Lanka, has said his initial focus is on performing as a batsman in the three ODIs that precede the Tests. Highlighting the challenges that await in Sri Lanka, a place where South Africa have not done well in the past, Amla hoped the team would draw from their collective subcontinent experience in dealing with the conditions.
"Although I have had a few weeks to give the captaincy a little bit more thought, but nothing much has changed," Amla said. "I think a lot will change once the series starts, but up until then, my focus mentally is on the one-day series. Fortunately, I was in the UK playing county cricket in preparation for this tour, but in my mind I have been thinking about the ODIs and hopefully we can make amends. The captaincy will come at a later stage.
"Two matches, I am quite happy about it. Sri Lanka is a tough place to tour. From a rankings perspective, we have dropped to No. 2, but that is not at the forefront of our objectives. We would love to be there [No. 1] as soon as possible but with the kind of new make-up team that we have, it's important to find a winning formula first and things will fall into place later."
In three bilateral ODI series in Sri Lanka since 2000, South Africa have managed just one win in 13 matches. The team's record in Tests has not been good either during this period - one win in seven matches. However, they did win the T20s in their limited-overs tour to Sri Lanka last year and Russell Domingo, the South Africa coach, hoped to draw on that confidence.
"I know it's a different format but the way we finished the last two of the T20s. We beat them 2-1," Domingo said. "It was our first white-ball series win in Sri Lanka, so we can take the confidence from it that we have won a series in the shorter version in Sri Lanka.
"I know we lost 4-1 (in the ODIs) last year, but I can remember it as a strange tour. Hashim played one game, then he got sick, then he started playing the next game and broke a finger. So there were lot of disruptions, lot of injuries, and lot of inexperience. There was no Dale Steyn, no Jacques Kallis. Hashim missed a few games. And having that sort of quality will be a massive benefit. Last year was a learning experience for the young players and now we are fortunate to have some of the senior players back. Hopefully that will make a big impact."
South Africa were fortunate to get a match in Hambantota, a venue, Domingo said, that "suits" South Africa because of the extra pace and bounce in the pitch. He was, however, quick to emphasise the wider challenge of the conditions.
"The heat is stifling in Sri Lanka and your pace attack can only bowl short spells. It's anything but easy to bat in Sri Lanka. Very testing conditions, not just the heat, but the nature of the wickets - they are abrasive and it spins," Domingo said. "We have seen at night times sometimes, it does offer a little bit of movement. So losing early wickets is a possibility that exposes your middle order to their spin strength, which then puts your team under pressure. So it's not easy to bat in Sri Lanka."
Those batting challenges will extend into the Test series. Among the batsmen, only Amla and AB de Villiers have played a Test, the last of which was eight years ago, in Sri Lanka. While de Villiers scored 217 runs in four innings during the 2006 tour, it was a below average outing for Amla, who managed just 69 runs. Both batsmen have gained in stature since then but Amla said the Sri Lankan bowling, especially Rangana Herath, will be testing.
"We have always viewed Herath as a very good bowler, especially in Sri Lankan conditions," Amla said. "Malinga is not playing Tests anymore, so they have relied on Herath as their main wicket-taker. Let's not be forgetting or disrespecting to the other bowlers who have done really well for them, but Herath is a factor. If the wickets do turn, we will deal with it. We are fortunate that most of our batters have played in the subcontinent - we have beaten India - and Dubai and in Sri Lanka. Fortunately we have lot of experience and we will draw on that."