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Andrew Fidel Fernando
July 4, 2014
The first half of Sri Lanka's 2014 deserves some reliving. It began with a gritty two-day rearguard against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi, held firm by a resilient Angelo Mathews playing the innings that would launch his batting to a new realm. Soon after, the team's rookie seamers engineered victory in Dubai, hinting at their potential. A negative Sri Lanka squandered their series gains in Sharjah, but the forces that came together in the UAE have powered the Sri Lanka surge since.
Mathews' immense form across formats and disciplines, were instrumental to Sri Lanka's triumphs in the Asia Cup and the World T20. His unforgettable 160 at Headingley completed Sri Lanka's shift from desperation to dominance in that match. Shaminda Eranga has not contributed at such a high pitch, but his sharp, accurate seam has been the steady bassline in Sri Lanka's Test successes this year.
Kumar Sangakkara's numbers rarely flinch, and Mahela Jayawardene continues to deliver high-value knocks in hard times. With a slew of junior players in a scrum to make a name, Sri Lanka have won 22 of the 27 games they have played since Sharjah. They have won, not because they have had the best players, or the best-made plans, but because they have fought and fused together to become greater than the sum of their parts. Incredibly, they are yet to play a match at home this year.
And this is why the imminent assignment against South Africa is particularly intriguing. Sri Lanka are in a relatively unfamiliar position. Given their form and South Africa's dismal record in the country, the hosts will approach the series as favourites.
Sri Lanka are experts at wearing the underdog tag, but have less experience with high expectations against top-eight teams, particularly in Tests. They have gathered pace like a runaway train since February, but nothing is a sure thing in Sri Lankan cricket. As they enter a busy two months at home, Sri Lanka will aim to avoid becoming derailed.
Following Sri Lanka's 4-1 ODI defeat of South Africa last year, Sangakkara had outlined why the hosts have the upper hand against this opponent, and bemoaned the postponement of the Tests, which have now been transplanted into this tour. "We saw how much South Africa didn't like our spinners, our climate and our pitches in the one-dayers," Sangakkara had said. "If we had the chance to play them in Tests here, and if we had won, our ranking would have risen. If we had been able to play at home, where we have such an advantage, it would have been a great thing."
Now they have that chance, and there is plenty on the line in this tour beyond the team's confidence. Sri Lanka's progress towards next year's World Cup has been close to ideal so far, with a core bowling group nailed down, and four of the top six bedded in, and scoring heavily.
Kusal Perera's hot-and-cold starts and Thisara Perera's sporadic star-turns have frustrated the selectors this year, but with a busy ODI schedule ahead, there is time to give the incumbents more time to build their case. Kusal may feel the most heat at present. Upul Tharanga has been named in the ODI squad while the likes of Ashan Priyanjan and Kithuruwan Vithanage, meanwhile, will also eye a chance if Thisara is to falter.
Of more immediate concern is the upcoming release of the results from Sachithra Senanayake's testing, which was concluded in Cardiff at the end of June. Senanayake has made no visible change to his action since being cleared following his first biomechanical examination in 2012, so both he and the team remain confident about the legitimacy of his action.
But an unfavourable report from the scientists would compromise a key cog in Sri Lanka's ODI machine. Senanayake bowls astutely at every stage of an innings, and is so often a miser and a menace at once. Of the other spinners in the squad, Ajantha Mendis swings from destructive to drab in the space of a few matches, and Rangana Herath is at the mercy of a chronic knee complaint.
Despite the dramatic victory in England, Sri Lanka still appear the most vulnerable in Tests, and Dale Steyn, in particular, will examine the inexperienced men in the top order. The pitch at Galle is sure to turn from day one for South Africa, but as Tim Southee and Trent Boult discovered in 2012, there is sometimes huge swing to be had in the air, even on bright days. Sri Lanka's seamers lack much of Steyn's ammunition, but in a year in which they have outshone the spin bowlers, they will be keen to script another happy chapter of progress.
There are ranking places on offer as always. A strong win in the ODIs will move Sri Lanka to second on the table, while victory in the Tests may see them rise to fifth, depending on how India's tour of England transpires.
South Africa have withered on previous Sri Lanka tours, but they remain among the best, and will be intent on avoiding past mistakes. If Sri Lanka can bring their overseas success to their back yard, they will sustain their high-octane 2014, and make a serious play at becoming a major cricket power.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernandoFeeds: Andrew Fidel Fernando
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