South Africa's humbling lesson from 2006
The last time South Africa played a Test match in Sri Lanka was the year bird flu flapped its way across East Asia, Italy won the World Cup and Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt had the first of their three biological children. But perhaps more tellingly, the civil war was still raging in Sri Lanka in 2006. There would be cricket but it was on a collision course with real life. The South African team would have to concern themselves with both those things.
Naturally, the first was their main focus initially. It had to be considering the state of the South African team that traveled to Sri Lanka. About eight weeks before the team was due to leave, CSA announced Jacques Kallis was unlikely to be able to go with them because he would be recovering from surgery to repair tendinitis in his elbow. Shortly after that, South Africa learnt Shaun Pollock would not be able to play in the first Test because he had to remain home for the birth of his second child.
That was bad enough but it would get worse. About two-and-half weeks before the flight to Colombo, Graeme Smith tore ligaments in his ankle while running and was ruled out as well. Ashwell Prince was asked to stand in as captain, a significant appointment in a country with a racially-divided past because he was the first South African of colour to lead the team.
Sounds familiar? Of course it does.
South Africa are without Kallis and Smith this time as well but their absence is permanent. They are also under a captain of colour again and he is permanent too.
Hashim Amla may not have time to consider the long-term implications of accepting the role he was once so reluctant to take up because his immediate task is more pressing. Sri Lanka is the place where South Africa last lost a Test series away from home when Prince's depleted side was defeated.
What Amla, who was part of that team, should remember from then is that they remained in good spirits despite the heavy losses and the incident in which Dean Jones called him a "terrorist" on air during a commentary stint.
"The mood was pretty festive. We had a good few youngsters in the squad who had a proper introduction to the rigours of subcontinental cricket there; guys like Hashim, Dale Steyn and AB de Villiers who are so integral to our current squad," Gordon Templeton, the media officer on that tour, told ESPNcricinfo. "And then we also had a good mix of experience- Mark Boucher, Makhaya Ntini and Andre Nel - so we didn't feel like we had no one senior."
While South Africa were completely outplayed in the first Test, after the massive 624-run partnership between Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene condemned them to an innings-and-153-run loss, Templeton prefers to remember the next match where Dale Steyn claimed his first five-for away from home.
"He was so young, just in his eighth match and he was very nervous," Templeton said. "After he took those wickets, he had to address the media, one of the first times he was in front of a foreign press contingent. It was a good learning experience."
Gaining knowledge was one of the main themes of that tour. South Africa were confined to Colombo because of the ongoing violence in Sri Lanka, specifically in the north, and one of the first things they had to come to terms with was visiting a country at war. "From the moment we arrived, we could see there was a heightened security presence. We had military and police around us all the way from the airport to the hotel, much more than normal," Templeton said.
Because the squad could not explore the other regions of the country, they had to make do with excursions close to the capital. Far from feeling cabin-feverish, Templeton remembers the interest in discovering local culture soared. "We went to one of the Ceylon Tea Plantations, which was quite interesting especially because a lot of us drank that tea," Templeton said. "And then we also went to the Singer factory where a lot of South African seamstresses from Cape Town had found work. We were intrigued by the connection between the two countries."
The curiosity extended to the Liberty Plaza shopping centre, where the players spent "a fair amount of their down time," according to Templeton, eating in the restaurants or buying trinkets. They would probably have been there on August 14, when the first match of a tri-series which also included India was washed out but then-coach Mickey Arthur wanted to have an indoor training session.
"Mickey felt the bowlers needed to get a good workout and he wanted a proper practice so we went ahead with that instead of taking extra time off," Templeton said. While they were training a bomb went off at the shopping centre, killing seven. The team found out when they got back to their hotel.
"It came as a complete surprise to us because we felt safe in Colombo," Goolam Rajah, the team manager at the time, said. "Nowhere that we had been in the city had we come across anyone who told us we shouldn't be there or that it was dangerous. After the bomb went off we wondered if we'd been living in a fool's paradise."
Team management met with security officials to decide what South Africa's next move would be while Rajah fielded calls from families back home. "My wife heard about it on the radio and she was frantic. She was able to get through to me to find out we were okay but she was still worried," Rajah said. "There were definitely concerns."
South Africa decided the best option was to leave and abandoned the tour. They had four more ODIs left to play, which were important for their build up to the Champions Trophy in India later that year. "We were disappointed that we couldn't play those games and we didn't want to leave a tour unfinished," Rajah said.
Arthur called the aborted tour a "disaster" and CSA organised fixtures against Zimbabwe to ensure there was game time ahead of the Champions Trophy. South Africa lost in the semi-finals to a rampant West Indies and the tournament was filed as another 'what if' in the long line of questions over performances in major competitions.
This time South Africa are again using Sri Lanka as the springboard to begin preparations for an important global event. The three ODIs mark the start of their planning for the 2015 World Cup and will see the return of Kallis to No. 3 in the batting line-up, which South Africa will build around him. Their attack contains significant variation with the inclusion of left-armer Beuran Hendricks and Vernon Philander.
Once they've tinkered with combinations in that format, they will move on to the Tests where only a series win will see them reclaim the No. 1 ranking they fought so long to gain. The fraction of a point that separates them from Australia cannot be closed with a positive result over Zimbabwe so if they do not gain it in Sri Lanka, they will have to wait until the home series against West Indies in December-January to begin searching for it again.
Those are two big tasks which will put cricket firmly at the forefront of South Africa's thoughts when their tour of the island begins. They've been back for the World T20 in 2012 and a limited-overs rubber last year but this will be different and again, they will be confronted with all the signs of real life, from their own rebuilding to that of the country they are visiting.
Last year, Amla was struck by how the country had recovered from the 2004 tsunami. He said it left him feeling "humbled." For a team in a time of transition, that is not the worst sentiment to have as they embark on a new era.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent