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Can Sri Lanka up their game in South Africa?

Sri Lanka's top batsmen have all been well below par in Tests in South Africa ESPNcricinfo Ltd

In 24 years since South Africa's readmission to international cricket, Sri Lanka have played exactly ten Tests there. During the same period, England have played 23, Australia 20 and India 17. The conditions in South Africa, with the bouncy and seamer-friendly pitches, are anyway difficult for Asian teams to adapt to, but the lack of frequent tours has further hurt teams like Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

Over the last two and a half decades, South Africa and Australia have been among the two toughest places to tour for Sri Lanka: in 20 Tests in those countries, Sri Lanka have lost 17, and won just one - in Durban in the 2011 Boxing Day Test. The two other big Asian teams have struggled in these countries too, but both India and Pakistan have had a few more wins. India have also played twice as many Tests as Sri Lanka in these two countries, which has obviously given their players a better chance to adapt. The difference between Sri Lanka's batting and bowling averages is almost 21, which indicates how hopelessly outmatched they have been in these Tests.

While Sri Lanka's overall record in South Africa isn't impressive, they are at least coming to the country with the knowledge that the last time they played a Boxing Day Test here, they won by a whopping 208 runs. That team included stalwarts like Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Tillakaratne Dilshan, but this younger team has players who are not burdened by the baggage of earlier defeats in South Africa. Also, while Sri Lanka have produced several terrific batsmen, most of those big names have struggled to make a mark in South Africa.

In 74 innings among them, Sangakkara, Jayawardene, Dilshan, Sanath Jayasuriya, Marvan Atapattu and Aravinda de Silva - Sri Lanka's six leading run-scorers in their Test history - have collectively scored a single Test century in South Africa, which was Sangakkara's 108 in the second innings of that famous Durban win. Collectively, they average 25.92 in these 74 innings, with nine half-centuries and eight ducks. In their collective Test careers, on the other hand, these six batsmen have scored 48,542 runs in 663 Tests, at an average of 46.23.

The Sri Lankan batsmen who have done better are the less celebrated ones - Thilan Samaraweera and Hashan Tillakaratne have, between them, scored three hundreds in 14 innings, and have a combined average of 49.17 in these 14 innings. Samaraweera, especially, was exceptional in the 2011-12 series, scoring two centuries in six innings.

Among Sri Lanka's top nine run scorers in Tests in South Africa, Samaraweera is the only batsman whose average in that country is better than his career average. For Sangakkara, Jayawardene and Jayasuriya, their averages in South Africa are more than 21 runs fewer than their career averages.

The current batting line-up of Kusal Mendis, Dhananjaya de Silva, Dimuth Karunaratne and Kaushal Silva will be up against a South African team buoyed by their spectacular series win in Australia, but they will also have an opportunity to break this template of Sri Lankan batsmen playing well below par in South Africa.

Similarly, Sri Lanka's bowling - especially their pace attack - has generally been pretty ineffective in the country, in conditions that should be ideal for quick bowling. Their two leading wicket-takers among seamers are Dilhara Fernando and Chaminda Vaas, and both have conceded more than 40 runs per wicket.

In fact, the Sri Lankan spinners have done far better than their seamer counterparts. Muttiah Muralitharan is their leading wicket-taker, with 35 wickets in six Tests at 26.02 - which is in sharp contrast to his stats in Australia - while Rangana Herath was the star of the Durban win in 2011, returning match figures of 9 for 128. Overall, the Sri Lankan seam average of 47.78 is poorer than all teams except Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, but their spin average of 29 is better than all teams except Australia.

Sri Lanka's fast bowlers have a history of underperforming in conditions that traditionally favour seam and swing - their numbers in England, Australia and South Africa back this up - but none of the specialist fast bowlers in their current squad have played a Test in South Africa.

For the bowlers and for the batsmen, this series is an opportunity to put behind the history of underperformance and prove that Sri Lanka can compete with the best even with a young team and in unfamiliar conditions.