St George's promises hospitable opener
If there's one thing South Africans know how to do properly, it is host. This country has staged everything from the world's biggest single sport event - the football World Cup - to the world's largest individually timed cycle race (the Argus), the world's largest open water swim (the Midmar Mile), and the world's biggest ultra-marathon (the Comrades). And those are just the big deals.
Many more come here for the natural beauty, the wildlife and the winelands. So many that the tourism authority recently revealed that there have been a million more visitors to the country this year than last, with ten days of 2016 still to go. Among them are the Sri Lanka team, who will have just as much red-carpet treatment as anyone else.
Their three-Test series begins in Port Elizabeth - the place known for being slow and low (or at least slower and lower than anywhere else in the country) - then moves to Cape Town, where spinners have often have had some say, before concluding in Johannesburg. A more cynical host may have wanted to flip those venues around and make the visitors uncomfortable at altitude, where they would also have had pace and bounce to deal with.
That's how the South Africa of the last few years used to do it. India's 2010-11 tour began in Centurion; so did Sri Lanka's the following summer, and both ended in innings victories for the home side. In 2012-13, Pakistan started at the Wanderers and ended at SuperSport Park. They lost both matches by big margins - 211 runs and an innings and 18 runs - as well as the one in between at Newlands, albeit by just four wickets.
It's a formula that works, especially against sides from the subcontinent, so South Africa would have been forgiven for simply copying this time it but they couldn't. They have already played this season's Centurion Test - against New Zealand in August - and they are determined to host the Boxing Day match on the coast, even as holiday-makers continue to prefer the beach to the bleachers. With Kingsmead's match for this summer also done and the New Year's Test the preserve of Newlands, Port Elizabeth was the only possibility - but that's no bad thing.
Instead of following the trend, indulged the world over, of preparing pitches that are stacked in the hosts' favour, South Africa are favouring a more even bat-ball contest. That may not always sit well with the team camp but at least it levels the playing field.
"We've been frustrated sometimes when we've felt that some of our wickets suit the opposition more than it suits us," Russell Domingo, South Africa's coach, said. "We've played on some wickets in Durban that have spun square against subcontinent sides and we're thinking, 'Jees, that's not what we are looking for'. This time of year in South Africa, with the heat and the wind, it's a dry time, wickets don't always offer what we are really looking for, which brings the opposition into the game a lot more. In that context, wickets in South Africa are probably fairer to the contest than most venues around the world."
The last year has been particularly hot and dry as the country continues to recover from its worst drought on record and that has had an effect on cricket too. There are water restrictions in place in Port Elizabeth and, even though the ground uses a borehole for irrigation, the water table remains low. Groundsman Adrian Carter has been doing what he can to keep moisture in but he can't control the drying wind, which is set to breeze in at speeds of 80kph on Saturday. The westerly tends to make the surface flatter and Carter hopes that will be offset by Monday's easterly, which aids swing. He remains "pretty happy with how it looks at the moment".
A fairly thick grass covering will stay on even though, as Domingo explained, "that doesn't often mean much" because "it's more the cloud cover and the direction of the wind that does assist the bowlers".
Keeping the grass on, according to Domingo, helps provide an extra bit of pace and bounce but he is also expecting some turn, although Carter explained it won't be emphatic: "We don't get that sharp, fizzing turn here, it's more likely to be slow turn. There will be something with the new ball, it will go around a bit but if it gets to day four and five, the spinners will come into it."
Sounds like the perfect conditions for a Test, which may be why South Africa's record at the ground is almost as even as it comes. Overall, they have played 26 Tests at St George's Park, won 10, lost 11 and drawn five. Since readmission, success has shifted slightly in their favour: post-1991, they have won six, lost four and drawn four, including their most recent one against West Indies in 2014. That match did not even get into a second innings for either side, a full day was lost to rain and there were several other interruptions. The forecast does not indicate anything similar this time.
Interestingly, West Indies got the better of South Africa at the same venue lost to Pakistan there; in December, to West Indies. The ground did not host a Test for five years after that. Carter said he didn't think the results had anything to do with that but the coincidence still raises the question.
During that break, Carter and his team imported bully grass from SuperSport Park, to see if they could inject some life into their surfaces, but found it didn't make much difference. Carter has accepted that Port Elizabeth is what it is and he is proud of it. "Every ground must have its own unique characteristics," he said. "Of course, teams have to have home ground advantage and ours is a little different."
Instead of pace and bounce, the home side can benefit from reverse swing. You need only think back to Dale Steyn's performance against Australia in 2014 for a reminder of what Domingo is looking forward to. "The ball tends to reverse here because of the abrasiveness of the wicket, which helps our seamers," he said.
Of course, there is no Steyn this time but South Africa have other options. Kyle Abbott and local lad Wayne Parnell - who may not make the XI - will be relishing the chance to play here. The batsmen, perhaps a little less so. They will have to display temperament and technique but Domingo is confident they are up for that. "It's a wicket where you have got to be patient. You've got to grind out runs and that's the strength of our side: we are able to withstand those periods," he said.
So the series is set to start with a test of will and a fairly warm welcome to Sri Lanka. They have never played a Test at St George's Park and even if they don't like the surface so much, they will definitely like the atmosphere. The brass band makes it as lively as the papare ones do back home and the strong support, although partisan, enjoy making new friends. All in all, it's the gentlest start Sri Lanka could have wanted and the most hospitable one South Africa could have given.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent