A South African side, missing their spearhead and their most experienced opening batsman, would be happy with only a 3-2 loss in Sri Lanka, AB de Villiers said on the eve of the dead rubber in Colombo. In one year, South Africa have slipped from first to fifth on the ICC ODI rankings, but their captain suggested a narrow series loss constituted a positive outcome for the side, given the inexperience on tour.
Graeme Smith and Dale Steyn were unavailable for the tour because of injuries, while Jacques Kallis is unlikely to play bilateral one-day series in future. South Africa also missed Hashim Amla at the top of the order in the first three matches, due to injury.
"It would sound a lot better to lose 3-2 than 4-1," de Villiers said. "We can't do better than losing 3-2 right now, but if you look at a tough tour here, with a youngish, inexperienced team, to lose 3-2 would be a great effort in the long run, I think. We've got a lot to gain in this last game. I think the guys would take a lot of confidence just losing a series 3-2 against Sri Lanka, thinking ahead to playing against Pakistan in the UAE soon. We're still working on a few things. We've got a lot to improve on with bat, ball and in the field, so we'd like to get that going tomorrow."
De Villiers also suggested pressure had paralysed the flair in South Africa's game in this series, and he hoped that with the series already decided, his side would play a freer brand of cricket. South Africa's innings has tended to stagnate throughout the series, most notably in the fourth ODI, when they were dismissed for 238 after having been 118 for 1 after 22 overs.
"We haven't played as well as we could recently, and we're still representing a very proud nation, so there is pressure in this match," he said. "But the situation allows us to maybe free up a bit - to try a few combinations, and try a few shots that we haven't tried before and really express ourselves. We've been a bit stuck at times in this series. Guys have focused so much on the basics that we almost forget how to showcase our skills. It's time to let go a bit and also get the basics right, but really free the boys up to play some proper cricket."
De Villiers also conceded South Africa's attempts to play a spin-heavy attack in Sri Lankan conditions early in the series had been misguided, and that the quicks would dominate the attack on Wednesday. They had fielded two specialist spinners for the first two matches, but had their only victory after moving away from that strategy in Pallekele. Between them, Robin Peterson, Aaron Phangiso and JP Duminy have taken only six wickets in the series, while Sri Lanka's three spinners have taken 18.
"I think we focused a little bit too much on trying to play like them in their conditions," de Villiers said. "We may just stick with our normal formation of four seamers and one main spinner, with JP [Duminy], who has been bowling really well. He's been an outstanding performer for us. That makes it a bit easier to go with the extra seamer."
De Villiers himself has struggled with the bat this series, hitting 86 in total at an average of 21.50. He said the paucity of runs was particularly frustrating because he feels in good nick.
"I'm hitting the ball as sweetly as I ever have," he said. "My game plan is in place, and everything else is in place. I've received a few good deliveries in this series and the last dismissal was a bit soft. You'd like to think that when the best players in the world get in, they make it count. I haven't been doing that of late. I haven't changed anything at all. It's not like I'm trying different shots. I've got my game plan and I'm sticking exactly to that."