No stroll for favourites Sri Lanka
Sunday, July 6, 2014
Start time 0945 local (0415 GMT)
When South Africa were in Sri Lanka for ODIs last year, the visitors barely took breaths between comments about the heat. That is a little like going to Moscow and complaining people mostly spoke Russian. Maybe the men at SLC took note and chose to provide their team optimal advantage. Perhaps they are just sadists (which some Sri Lanka fans would not find surprising). Whatever the reason, the two ODIs played in the hottest climes, in Colombo and Hambantota, are both day matches. July is not the warmest or most humid month in the Sri Lankan calendar. But it's no Highveld either.
Then there are the pitches. If SLC were indeed taking notes from 2013's South Africa sojourn, or just following the sport in general (which some Sri Lanka fans would find surprising), they will know of the tourists' aversion to spin. The Premadasa Stadium surface can assist seam at times, but it also has a dustbowl mode. Angelo Mathews might be slightly miffed if he arrives there on Sunday morning to find the pitch would not suit a second frontline slow bowler.
But South Africa are too good a team to stumble into the same pits that swallowed them during the 4-1 drubbing last year. They have arrived with good time, and clinically trounced a Board XI side featuring five players from last year's Sri Lanka squad. They will also have studied Ajantha Mendis with renewed vigour and run microscopes over Sachithra Senanayake as well. Most men in their squad have toured the island before, and if Jacques Kallis is fit, South Africa will also be at full strength, which they were not in 2013. Sri Lanka still begin as favourites, but they will not expect to stroll past the visitors so easily this time.
The hosts, though, are not just humming, they are surging. A sweep of the trophies in England has the team in predictably high spirits. Angelo Mathews said on that tour that his side is "like a family", and when Mahela Jayawardene leaps on Kumar Sangakkara's back or when Mathews and Rangana Herath place their arms tenderly around each other's waists while mulling field placements, it is not difficult to imagine they are close. This year they have defeated sides that outgunned them on paper, by dint of preparation and fighting spirit. Now they are at home, complacency appears the chief obstacle.
Form guide(last five completed matches, most recent first)
Sri Lanka: WWLWL
South Africa: WWWLL
In the spotlight
The vice-captaincy seems a poisoned chalice for young Sri Lanka players. Dinesh Chandimal went through a staggeringly lean patch when burdened with it in ODIs, and now Lahiru Thirimanne may be struggling under its weight. It is an odd change of fortunes for Thirimanne, who had been instrumental to Sri Lanka's Asia Cup triumph in March, and had contributed to the World T20 campaign as well. He will hope a team without nemesis James Anderson will be an easier challenge, but in Dale Steyn, South Africa have a bowler who can do almost everything Anderson does, only faster. Thirimanne will hope to recover self-belief before the teams move to the Tests.
Imran Tahir is on his first top-level tour of Sri Lanka, and already the onus is on him to provide the bowling spark South Africa so desperately lacked in the 2013 series. Tahir has whirled his way to an average of 14.81 in nine matches elsewhere on the continent, but Sri Lanka pitches often reward different lengths and speeds than are generally useful in nearby nation. As a wrist spinner Tahir may pose a different slow-bowling challenge from those Sri Lanka see off with little fuss from most touring teams.
Kusal Perera was out of the domestic T20 tournament with a knee injury, but news from the Sri Lanka camp suggests he will be available for the first ODI. Sri Lanka have three spinners in the squad, and if the Premadasa pitch looks like it will take turn, Rangana Herath is most likely to miss out, thanks chiefly to his importance to Sri Lanka in the Tests, and his temperamental knee injury.
Sri Lanka (probable): 1 Tillakaratne Dilshan, 2 Kusal Perera, 3 Kumar Sangakkara (wk), 4 Mahela Jayawardene 5 Lahiru Thirimanne, 6 Angelo Mathews (capt), 7 Thisara Perera, 8 Nuwan Kulasekara, 9 Sachithra Senanayake, 10 Ajantha Mendis, 11 Lasith Malinga
An upper back injury has put Jacques Kallis in doubt, with the allrounder having already missed the warm-up match. Elsewhere, South Africa appear in good health.
South Africa (probable): 1 Hashim Amla, 2 Quinton de Kock (wk), 3 Jacques Kallis/ Ryan McLaren, 4 AB de Villiers (capt), 5 JP Duminy, 6 Faf du Plessis, 7 David Miller, 8 Vernon Philander, 9 Dale Steyn, 10 Morne Morkel, 11 Imran Tahir
Pitch and conditions
There is a chance of rain in the morning, which may help freshen up the surface and also lower the temperature during the day, if the cloud hangs around.
Stats and trivia
- South Africa last played an ODI in December last year - against India, at home
- South Africa have never won an ODI series in Sri Lanka. They have completed 15 ODIs in the country and lost all but two
- Kumar Sangakkara is the leading ODI scorer for 2014 with 559 runs at 46.58. He has gone past the four-figure threshold thrice in the past three years
"You can't be complacent because they play their best cricket wherever they play, and they have got all their guns back. So we expect a really good challenge from the South Africans."
"If you can win a series in Sri Lanka, mentally that puts you in a good position going into a tournament like the World Cup. There's every chance you could end playing Sri Lanka in a competition like the World Cup, in a big quarter-final."
South Africa coach Russell Domingo is looking to prepare for the World Cup, even in Sri Lanka
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.