South Africa wary of spin and heat
A tour to Sri Lanka typically involves turning tracks, talented tweakers, heat and humidity. South Africa thrive on pace and bounce and the weather at home is rarely extreme. Overcoming those factors present the main challenge when the series begins on Sunday.
Last July, the visitors had succumbed to spin and stifling heat to lose the ODI series 4-1 and caused intense introspection about their fifty-over strategy.
Some of the reasons for their underperformance were self-explanatory. South Africa were beset by injury and absentees - Hashim Amla manned his usual opening position only twice and he played only three games. Dale Steyn was rested for the tour, Jacques Kallis had opted out of the Champions Trophy and was yet to recommit to the one-day side. There was uncertainty over team composition and a fair amount of inexperience.
But there were other areas which raised more questions. Ajantha Mendis and Rangana Herath shared 16 wickets between them in the series while South Africa's spinners, Aaron Phangiso and JP Duminy only managed five. Had South Africa slipped back into their struggles both against spin and in finding a decent exponent of their own? Sri Lanka had two centurions across the five matches, South Africa had none. Was the correct batting line-up in place and was it being used to the best of its ability?
AB de Villiers believes South Africa have the answers this time. "We did quite a few things wrong last year but we've got a more experienced team now," he said.
Amla is fit, Steyn is in the squad but most importantly, Kallis is back. Despite missing the warm-up match with an upper back problem, de Villiers declared Kallis "ready to go," in the first match but cautioned that he may not be able to function as a fully-fledged all-rounder. "It's all a matter of how much he can bowl," de Villiers said.
With South Africa's pace contingent including Steyn, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander, Ryan McLaren and a choice of left-armers in Wayne Parnell and Beuran Hendricks, Kallis' bowling role may be minimised anyway and his contribution as a batsman and mentor will take greater precedence. Already, de Villiers said he "has been working with some of the younger guys on how to play spin properly," because South Africa want to show improvement from last year.
While South Africa hope Kallis and his influence will takes care of one side of the spin coin, they have identified Imran Tahir as the man to deal with the other. "Immi is a match winner; he has got that x-factor. He is in a very good space with ball in hand at the moment and he is bowling really well," de Villiers said. "I look forward to using him in some very big moments."
Tahir has embraced the responsibility and is eager to perform. "I have always been really confident, but maybe in the past I wasn't sure where I stood in the team. At the moment I am playing T20s, ODIs and Tests so that automatically gives me good confidence about myself," he said. "Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara are two of the greatest players of spin in the world. They obviously grew up facing spin rather than fast bowling so it will be a good challenge."
And then there is the weather. Temperatures in Sri Lanka are hovering near the 30-degree mark which does not sound so bad, but combined with humidity above 70%, the real feel is far more intense. De Villiers said last year South Africa found it "difficult to build proper innings and partnerships," and that does not even take into account the effects it would have had on the bowlers.
Since then South Africa have played in similar conditions in the UAE where they tried novel things like wearing ice vests and necklaces between overs and during drinks breaks and using an umbrella when they could for some cooling. South Africa's fitness trainer Greg King confirmed neither method would make an appearance this time because South Africa discovered they did not provide as much relief as they hoped.
Instead they will resort to old-fashioned tactics like staying hydrated and grinning and bearing it. De Villiers called it knowing "how to look after the weather better." He didn't explain what that means but later mused that there are "no secret recipes to a winning formula." For South Africa to have a successful run in Sri Lanka, they may do well to remember there are some things they can't control and the forces of nature are some of them.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent