Sri Lanka's two previous Test tours of South Africa had brought four defeats and a draw. This time, their coach, Dav Whatmore, had identified two areas in which he and his side needed to sharpen their act: preparation and "mental presence" on the pitch. Each went up a notch or two, but the results did not. Both Tests and all bar one of the five one-day internationals were lost. Yet it was difficult to draw watertight conclusions from the tour: was this yet another example of Sri Lanka's weakness away from home - or did the series, particularly a heart-pounding final day at Centurion, signal the end of their overseas fallibility? Matters weren't much clearer for South Africa: were these performances indicative of their emergence from behind the post- Cronje cloud - or was it an inevitable and irrelevant triumph against another side with subcontinental homesick blues?
There was no doubt that Sri Lanka played a poor hand at Johannesburg. True, they had been given warm-up games on flat, honest pitches where runs came thick and fast, only to be confronted by a Wanderers strip so grassy that South Africa fielded no spinner for the first time in three years. The strategy was plain: negate the power of Muttiah Muralitharan, destroyer of the South Africans on their last Sri Lankan trip. They rightly reckoned that the gulf between the sides yawned widest when it came to the seam attack. While South Africa's fast bowlers, especially Shaun Pollock and the effervescent Makhaya Ntini, were energetic and menacing throughout, Sri Lanka's quicks were frustratingly wayward. The batting had a ghastly time, too, with only two players reaching 50 in the Tests.
Losing their captain, Sanath Jayasuriya, to a training injury before the Centurion match might have tipped Sri Lanka over the edge. Instead, under the acting-captain, Marvan Atapattu, they came close to squaring the series in a glorious contest where fortunes ebbed and flowed until the final session. They wriggled and kicked and punched and generally irritated their opponents so much that the largely unflappable Pollock grabbed Mahela Jayawardene by the helmet and shook him - a sign of frustration rather than malice. Tempers threatened to boil over, though no one was disciplined. By and large, the spirited fightback - in distinct contrast to previous tours, when they had been cowed and intimidated - was praised: "The Sri Lankans raised eyebrows with their performance and combative approach," noted one paper. "A Sri Lanka side that refused to lie down and die," applauded another.
They couldn't sustain the intensity in the five limited-overs internationals that followed, partly because Murali flew to Australia at the end of the Centurion Test for a hernia operation. The series was dominated by Jacques Kallis, who was the highest run-scorer on either side, just as he had been in the Tests (where he also picked up ten wickets). It was the perfect riposte to the controversial South African sports minister, Ngconde Balfour, who before the First Test had been quoted by the UCBSA as saying he didn't go to cricket to watch the likes of Kallis and Mark Boucher ("Who is Jacques Kallis? Jacques Kallis means nothing to me.") but to see Ntini and Paul Adams, both players of colour.
Match reports for
Tour Match: South Africa A v Sri Lankans at Kimberley, Oct 25-28, 2002
Tour Match: Rest of South Africa v Sri Lankans at Johannesburg, Nov 1-4, 2002
Tour Match: South Africa A v Sri Lankans at Potchefstroom, Nov 23, 2002
Griqualand West v Sri Lanka at Kimberley, Feb 4, 2003
Free State v Sri Lanka at Bloemfontein, Feb 6, 2003