Sri Lanka v South Africa, 1st ODI, Colombo July 5, 2014

SL ready for more verbal bouts if needled

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We find ways to win tough situations - Mathews

Among the lasting memories of the dramatic final day at Headingley was Sri Lanka's systematic verbal attack on Joe Root. For nearly half an hour the team fired barbs and bouncers at the batsman. Almost every player had a turn, like it was a team-building exercise at a shooting range. The celebrations at Root's wicket were as aggressive as the attitude that had preceded it.

It was a rare verbal onslaught from a side who largely play a more measured brand of cricket. Their collective outburst had come at the end of a tour in which they had felt besieged by media, administrators, the public and importantly, the opposition. Root had been among the chief agitators when England pushed for wickets towards the end of the Lord's Test. Sri Lanka did not pass up the chance to reciprocate.

As Sri Lanka wind up for another major tour, Angelo Mathews drew a line in the sand. "I don't think South Africa will have a go at us verbally, because the relationship between the teams is very good," he said. AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla seem less-inclined to whip up their troops to a frenzy like past South Africa captains have done. Even Graeme Smith had mellowed with the tide in any case.

But there was also a warning from Mathews. "We're not usually a very aggressive team on the field, but we can be. We need to control our emotions, but sometimes you've got to give it back to the opponents." Perhaps coincidentally, it was the abuse Sri Lanka received on their tour of South Africa in 2002 that helped form the "give-as-good-as-you-get" policy Mathews and his men still adhere to.

Some South Africa fast bowlers can be fired up, at times, between Vernon Philander's casual arrogance and Dale Steyn's "angry eyes". But the visitors will also probably be aware of Sri Lanka's reflex when a team-mate is under fire. The siege mentality Sri Lanka developed in England was fuel for their success there.

"When a situation occurs, we back ourselves and we back each member of the team," Mathews said. "If somebody is under pressure in the team - which happens quite a lot - you back the player and give him a lot of support. We've been doing that quite a lot in the recent past, especially in England. We've backed every decision that we've made. We've overcome those situations and we've played like a family."

In past years, Sri Lanka's on-field confrontations have not been anchored in confidence, but this team has the belief to match opponents' belligerence. They have won every trophy since February, and have 12 ODI wins for two losses this year.

"The six months that we've had - starting with the Asia Cup and the World T20 - is probably the best team environment I've been in. We just want to carry on the good things that we do. We obviously make mistakes, but the quicker you learn, the quicker you get over it. We can't get complacent thinking we've had six good months. We have to play our best cricket once again.

"We've got to balance the aggression out and not go overboard. You have to perform as well, and that's the key. You've got to do your work. I strongly believe in that. We've clicked as a team in all three departments, and we find ways of winning from tough situations. That has been the key for us."

Through the fighting talk, there was the refrain of respect for the opponents as well. South Africa have never won an ODI series in Sri Lanka, but this side bats deep and is effectively at full strength.

"South Africa have a very well-balanced team. The seven or eight batters that they've got are match-winners. They've got some really interesting bowlers, and they're a very good fielding unit. They come with an all-round package. We've got to be on our toes all the time.

"The England series is in the past now. It's history. It's done and dusted. Now we've got to move on and play our best cricket to beat the South Africans."

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando