Sri Lanka arrive at flat SSC with roles reversed
Sri Lanka like to begin Test series in Galle because they feel they can win there. In the past they have arrived at the SSC on a 1-0 cushion, and been happy to see a flat deck on which they can suck the life out of the series, and demoralise the opposition attack.
In the past few years, however, there has been a shift. Sri Lanka no longer have a bowler who dominates visiting batsmen from the first day of a series until its final session. In the post-Muttiah Muralitharan era, Sri Lanka have taken four 1-0 leads in Galle, and blown that lead three times, losing matches in Colombo. The P Sara Oval has been their least favoured venue, but as Sri Lanka arrive in the big city needing to win to level the series, Angelo Mathews knows the SSC could become a site of disappointment against South Africa as well.
"It is usually a flat wicket here," Mathews said. "It does a little bit in the morning session and then turns out to be a batting paradise. I hope it will be different. But whatever pitch we play on we've got to find ways to beat them. The wicket and the toss won't make a massive difference."
The task of taking 20 South Africa wickets has been made tougher by the injury to Shaminda Eranga, but Mathews suggested that while changes in personnel were likely, Sri Lanka will continue to play seven batsmen in their XI.
"I would like to go 7-4 on any wicket," he said. "The batters need to score runs to give the bowlers a chance. We haven't done that properly in the last few games. It's just that we have to be a bit more cautious. There will be phases in the game when the South Africa bowlers will be steaming in, and they will be reverse-swinging the ball. Those little phases we've got to win. They won most of those situations in the last Test."
Among the drawbacks of playing seven batsmen, is occasionally finding yourself a bowler short, as Sri Lanka did in Galle, when Eranga was rendered unfit to bowl after the first day. Mathews is the only reliable bowling option in the top seven, but he bowls only sporadically in Tests. He delivered 11 overs in Sri Lanka's first innings, but did not bowl at all in the second.
"I am trying to manage my bowling because I am still struggling with my knee," Mathews said. "There's a little bit of a niggle, especially in Test matches."
Mathews may also re-evaluate his place in the batting order, particularly after a spot opens up in the top five. He has averaged 81.69 since becoming captain, but has been hampered by middle-order collapses that have often left him having to bat with the tail.
"Going up the order is an option. Especially after the Pakistan series I might bat higher up, because Mahela Jayawardene is also retiring. Regardless of being the captain you are still a player in the team. You need to contribute with either bat or ball. I am just trying to keep it simple and score runs when I go to bat and pick up a few wickets when I bowl."
Sri Lanka have not launched criticism at South Africa after Vernon Philander was caught tampering the ball in Galle, and Mathews again batted away suggestions that South Africa's victory had been founded on reverse swing, achieved unfairly.
"To be honest we didn't play good cricket. That is the only reason for our loss in Galle. South Africa did reverse swing the ball, but our batsmen have faced reverse-swinging balls before, especially against Pakistan. We are used to that. It's not at all an excuse for our defeat. We will go all out to try and win this Test. If we lose 2-0 it doesn't matter, as long as we play well."
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's Sri Lanka correspondent. @andrewffernando