South Africa in Sri Lanka 2014 July 4, 2014

Home advantage beckons confident SL


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. @andrewffernando

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on July 5, 2014, 23:06 GMT

    Ajantha Mendis topped the wicket takers in the 2013 series with 10 wickets from just three ODI's. He would be the most feared bowler for the Sth Africans.

  • Dummy4 on July 5, 2014, 7:18 GMT

    rain will be the clear favourites in this tournement.

  • Dummy4 on July 5, 2014, 6:21 GMT

    Everything is going right for SL except for the BIG HITTER role. Need KAPUGEDARA back in the team ASAP. He showed what he is capable of in the domestic t20s as well.

  • Dummy4 on July 5, 2014, 5:08 GMT

    I don't think any team, even teams from the subcontinent, can beat this sl team. A draw would be very respectable. Even a draw would be a loss for srilanka. they are that hot now! Good luck to both teams. But then cricket is that game where top teams lose suddenly, winning teams lose alternate series etc. Wonder whats in store for the indian team, srilanka has certainly wounded england..they would be fuming lol and could take their anger on india.

  • Nimmie on July 5, 2014, 2:11 GMT

    There is no any advantage for SLan players in playing matches at Pallakelle, Hambanthota or Galle though the author mistakenly believes so. Those pitches are foreign to SLan players as much as it does for visitors despite those are being poorly maintained.

  • Anil on July 5, 2014, 2:00 GMT

    Excellent analysis...excellent, quality cricket commentary - from a very talented writer! All the best to the Pride of Lions....South Africa has some astounding talent.......but WINNING is RESERVED for those who try the hardest......

  • Manoj on July 4, 2014, 23:56 GMT

    Beating SL in SL is the hardest for any side and the record shows it ample. Speak to any past or present cricketers in the world they will testify this before shells were fired by Murali and now shells are fired by Herath and the pacies have joined the band wagon from no where to amuse all of us.No doubt SL will be clear favourites here in all formats

  • marino on July 4, 2014, 23:27 GMT

    I have to disagree with Andrew Fernando. Sri Lankans are hardly the underdogs when playing at home, they are always the favourites. If we look at the stats since 1996 when Sri Lankan Cricket really started to make huge strides, in Test Cricket Sri Lanka has the 3rd best Home Win/lost record out of all nations. And in the time period Sri Lanka has the 2nd best ODI win/lost record at Home just behind South Africa's home record.! So I think you should read into stats before claiming the underdog tag for Sri Lankans when they play at home, because it's falsifies reality.! South Africans always struggled (at times humiliated) at Sri Lanka in recent past and there's no surprise that Sri Lanka are the clear favourites. Sri Lankans think big when it comes to Cricket and we haven't looked back since 96 and we always go there to win. Don't forget in last 6 woldups (since 2007) Sri lanka were finalists in 5 of them & some people still have a gut to call them underdogs is beyond explanation..!

  • Chatty on July 4, 2014, 22:28 GMT

    I think the idea that Galle is a paradise for spin from day 1 is a misconception. Galle helps seamers as well. Even when the ball turns, it turns very slowly. So, it is not like the dust bowls you get in India where the ball turns squre.

  • Dummy4 on July 4, 2014, 19:58 GMT

    Before Sri Lanka-England test series commenced very few thought that SL will end up as a the victorious team. After they managed to hang on to a draw at Lords everyone anticipated conditions at Headingly to assist English bowlers and it was speculated that SL would be happy to escape with a draw. But SL fought back from a seemingly hopeless position to win the test and series. This means things have gone contrary to the predictions or anticipated outcomes. Therefore, it is difficult to make any predictions about this series. Given SA's dismal record in Sri Lanka, SL starts off as favourites but on the other hand SA is at full strength unlike past tours and it could eventually turn out to be classic series, both ODIs and Tests.

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