Over the past few years, visitors to Zimbabwe have faced an unwelcome prospect: little to gain, everything to lose.

The decreasing value of a tour of Zimbabwe can be seen in its most consistent marker. As India visited in three of the last four years, the teams they selected became ever weaker. In 2013, five first-XI players were rested. This year, as many as 17 players who were in India's previous limited-overs squads were left at home.

Sri Lanka's situation on this tour is slightly different in that the five first-choice players back home were all injured, and so this is the strongest possible side. Yet, the players coming in still faced the prospect of gaining little at best, and, at worst, kissing goodbye to future selections at the highest level. The way they have gone about their business has not suggested that this has been weighing on their minds.

The first Test brought a maiden century for Kusal Perera, and a first Test hundred in a decade for Upul Tharanga. But with Zimbabwe dropping six catches as they felt their way back into top-flight cricket, and both batsmen benefiting from the foundation laid by Sri Lanka's openers, neither century was one to seal debates on their long-term future.

The situation was different when Dhananjaya de Silva walked to the crease on the first day of the second Test. Sri Lanka were 112 for 4, and under pressure for the first time in the series. "I think we dropped our guard a little bit yesterday morning and we found ourselves in a spot of bother," Graham Ford, Sri Lanka's coach, said after day two. "Some of our batters came in under pressure, and it was pleasing to see the composure in the way they absorbed the pressure that we needed them to."

Zimbabwe had enjoyed a little bit of luck in taking three wickets prior to lunch. It wasn't necessarily luck that they deserved, but after the first Test, it could be argued that it was luck they were due. When they came out after lunch, the hosts seemed to have acknowledged that and decided to make the most of it. Bowlers who were so errant in the first session ramped up the pressure on de Silva and Tharanga, with the first 18 overs of the session yielding just 44 runs. "We started off badly in the first session, but I think we pulled it back quite nicely as the day wore on," Hamilton Masakadza said.

De Silva looked the perfect batsman for the circumstances. Although the pitch had even bounce, it remained on the slow side. Zimbabwe were playing the waiting game - a game that flashier batsmen than de Silva might well have lost. Instead, he remained compact, his neat technique never allowing him to get ahead of himself. Crucially on this surface, his range of strokes made it difficult for Zimbabwe to bowl in one place and block him up. By the end of the first day, he had an unbeaten hundred, having feasted on the spinners during the evening session. A Cricviz analysis showed the balance in his strokeplay: 51 runs off the front foot, 49 off the back foot; 51 on the off side, 49 on the leg side.

"He's known as the Ice Man in our dressing room because he showed such composure and handled real pressure against Australia - they were one of the best attacks in world cricket and he showed that he was up for Test match cricket," Ford said. "There's that side to it, but he also seems to have a lot of time. We saw he plays the short ball pretty well - he can dispatch it - and has good technique. There are lots of positives there when you add all of that together, so he's a real find for Sri Lankan cricket."

While de Silva looks to have set up his stall for the foreseeable future, adding depth to a batting department that is coming to terms with the retirement of Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara, Asela Gunaratne's case may be slightly different. Already 30 years old, Gunaratne is classified as an allrounder, but his bowling is never likely to be used on more than a part-time basis in Test cricket. As Sri Lanka toiled for 10 wickets on the last day of the first Test, Herath never once tossed him the ball.

But 186 runs in three innings for two dismissals is difficult to argue with. In the first Test, Sri Lanka were 351 for 5 when Gunaratne came to the crease. In the second Test, the score was 255 for 5. With Gunaratne marshalling the tail, they have added 435 runs for the last five wickets over the course of two first innings. Angelo Mathews will walk back into the Test side when Sri Lanka head to South Africa next month, but it will be difficult to keep Gunaratne off the plane.

"It's good to see the form that the batsmen have shown," Ford said. "Before the series, we knew that some of the fringe players had some talent but hadn't seen much opportunity. Now, they've put their hands up and scored runs, so to see some depth in our batting department is really encouraging and important."

On the 'little to gain' dilemma, he added: "The batsmen can only do what they can do, which is go out and score runs. If the wicket is flat, there's nothing they can do about it."

Sri Lanka's greatest challenge may yet come over the final three days of this match, as they face an improving Zimbabwe side on another flat pitch. Ford believes it will take some turn, but with fewer favours from Zimbabwe's batsmen - and the umpires, now that DRS is in place - a lot of hard work lies ahead. So far, Sri Lanka's batsmen have ticked all the boxes. Now, it's over to the bowlers.

Tristan Holme is a freelance cricket writer who covers the game in South Africa and Zimbabwe