From World Cup finalists to stumbling through three consecutive ODI series defeats, Sri Lanka's one-day fortunes have taken a sharp dip in the last 10 months. Every time they have shown signs of bouncing back, they have been struck back down. On their tour of England, they led the five-match series 2-1 before England came back. Against Australia at home, Sri Lanka were down 0-2, lifted themselves to win the third match, only to capitulate to Brett Lee and Xavier Doherty in the fourth. In the UAE, they levelled the series after losing the first match easily against Pakistan, but then lost the next three. Tillakaratne Dilshan, the Sri Lanka captain, said the odd good performance was not enough.

"We played good cricket in those three series at times, but we weren't consistent enough," Dilshan said ahead of the first ODI against South Africa. "If we can be consistent here we can finish well in this series." Sri Lanka have won just five out of the 18 ODIs they have played against South Africa in South Africa, but one of those wins came in the 2009 Champions Trophy, and they also tied the meeting between the sides in the 2003 World Cup, which led to the hosts South Africa exiting the tournament.

Lasith Malinga, the Sri Lanka fast bowler who only plays the limited-over formats, is expected to be his team's trump card and Dilshan said he was glad to have him back. "He is very experienced and is the leader of our attack. It's good that he is back in the side." Malinga took two wickets in Sri Lanka's practice match against an Emerging Cape Cobras side, and established franchise batsmen Richard Levi and Ryan Canning said he was at his fearsome best. There were other heartening signs for Sri Lanka during the game: Upul Tharanga started well, Mahela Jayawardene capitalised after being dropped twice to score 74, and youngsters Lahiru Thirimanne and Dinesh Chandimal contributed.

Thirimanne, 22, has been picked in the ODI squad ahead of more-experienced players, and Dilshan said that was a deliberate ploy to help the team prepare for the next World Cup. "We want to groom a few youngsters for the next World Cup and that's why we have retained Thirimanne. Guys like him need to get as much experience as possible and get ready for the next World Cup. That's the main idea. The selectors and senior players discussed this and I think it's the right way to move forward."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent