Unitech Cup, 2006 August 13, 2006

In-form Sri Lanka start favourites

Mahela Jayawardene continues to grow as an international captain © Getty Images
It's a measure of how formidable Sri Lanka are on their own turf that Mark Boucher, leading South Africa in this Unitech Cup, felt compelled to resort to flippancy when asked how the hosts could be stopped. "If you have any suggestions, please tell me," he said, perhaps aware that South Africa have not won a one-day match on the island since the far-off days of 1993.

India too have been indifferent performers in Sri Lanka, with their batsmen stymied by the sluggish pitches and Sri Lanka's multitude of slow-bowling options. Having beaten India in a low-scoring match in the Asia Cup final two seasons ago, they handed out three defeats in the triangular last year, Greg Chappell's first assignment in charge of the team.

Having pulverised England 5-0 in the old country, Sri Lanka have every reason to feel that this Cup too is theirs for the taking. Sanath Jayasuriya, seemingly consigned to the fringes after his failures in India last year, is once again batting with the power and confidence that characterised his salad years in the late 1990s, and in Upul Tharanga he has found a free-stroking accomplice infinitely more accomplished than biff-bang merchants like Avishka Gunawardene.

And though Marvan Atapattu is missing, Mahela Jayawardene, who appears to add layers to his accomplishment with each game in charge, and Kumar Sangakkara form a potent second line of attack. Factor in Tillakaratne Dilshan and Chamara Kapugadera, and you realise just why Sri Lanka are expected to carry on their proud record of 88 wins against 35 defeats on home soil.

An astonishing 41 of those wins have come at the Premadasa Stadium, formerly a swamp. The most famous of those was probably the rout of Australia in the Champions Trophy semi-final of 2002, when a blistering Australian start gave way to utter confusion and self-destruction once Aravinda de Silva came on to bowl his innocuous offbreaks.

Men like Dilshan, who bowls in similar fashion, and the ever-unpredictable Lasith Malinga give Sri Lanka a bowling X-factor to supplement bonafide legends like Muttiah Muralitharan and Chaminda Vaas. The spectre of Murali has such a debilitating effect on the psyche of opposing teams that they often try to tweak their tactics with a view to neutralising his threat. Already, there are rumours that India may save Virender Sehwag for the middle order, just so that too much momentum won't be lost once Murali comes on to apply his wicket-taking tourniquet with the softer white ball.

Sachin Tendulkar is back to give Indian even more batting power © Getty Images
India have a few wild cards of their own though. Their batting, with Tendulkar back to reinforce it, is grisly strong, and when they get it right - as they did against Sri Lanka at home and Pakistan away - no target is safe. Yuvraj Singh has become a master of the one-day game, and Mahendra Singh Dhoni provides an unorthodox big-hitting option not seen since the days of Kapil Dev.

Munaf Patel and S Sreesanth - only one of whom is likely to play if Irfan Pathan is persisted with - can give as good as they get in the pace stakes, and RP Singh with his skiddy medium pace could also be an option on slow pitches. Most crucial though will be the spin component led by Harbhajan Singh. Sehwag has been in superb bowling form of late, and Yuvraj and Tendulkar, shoulder willing, will be other options if the need of the hour is to take the pace off the ball.

South Africa don't have such a luxury, and must depend instead on their pace bowlers to hit the right areas on pitches not really suited to their brand of bowling. With the canny Charl Langeveldt missing, and Makhaya Ntini and Shaun Pollock both struggling with niggles, the likes of Andre Nel and Johan van der Wath will have to step up if South Africa are to change their dismal fortunes on these shores.

van der Wath, the so-called new kid on the block, is already 29, but as his thrilling 16-ball 36 in that one-dayer at Johannesburg showed, he doesn't shy away from the big occasion. Neither does Herschelle Gibbs, whose withdrawal with cramps after a scintillating century prompted that astonishing capitulation against India in the Champions Trophy semi-final of 2002. But with no Smith, no Kallis and no Kemp to provide some pizzazz, it's hard to escape the conclusion that the final on August 29 will be a South Asian affair. With so much wet weather around, one can only hope that it will be decided by events on the field, and not by rain-rules and charts that few can fathom.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo