It is 10 months since the World Cup on the Asian subcontinent, and both South Africa and Sri Lanka will want to improve their performance graphs significantly in the five-match one-day international series starting in Paarl today.
Neither side has had good results since the big event, won by India. Sri Lanka, who were losing finalists in the World Cup, for the second time in a row, have lost three series since then – against England and Pakistan away, and Australia at home.
There were flickerings of the good limited overs side they can be in all of those series, but the consistency that captain Tillakaratne Dilshan is demanding from his men has not been forthcoming.
Yet, clearly, the Sri Lankans can compose teams with the ability to go all the way. They have the 1996 World Cup triumph in their history, and the two recent final appearances, to show their pedigree. And in a trio of 30 -somethings – Dilshan, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene – they possess a batting spine that can win them plenty of games.
Sangakkara is closing in on 10,000 ODI runs, ended the recent series in the UAE against Pakistan strongly, and a century in the Durban Test victory for the tourists recently will also have given him confidence for the coming matches.
Dilshan, a potentially destructive force at the top of the order, in the role formerly played by Sanath Jayasuriya, is currently ranked 13th among the world’s best in ODIs, and although his average, at 34.75, does not seem imposing, he has 10 centuries to Sangakkara’s 11 in 87 fewer games.
Dilshan is by no means an easy wicket, and the wristy aggressor will be one targeted by South Africa. One of his favourite ploys is to make room and power the ball through the off side.
Drying up that avenue for runs will have been discussed in the SA team talks, but the Sri Lankan, made captain after the 2011 World Cup disappointment, has showed his innovative side by finding ways to score runs. Witness the much-copied Dil-scoop, the over-the-head lift which exploits the empty space behind the wicketkeeper (even if it riles cricket purists).
South Africa’s equivalent of the cheeky improviser is AB de Villiers, who will captain the Proteas for the first time.
At his best he can tear attacks to shreds, but the talking-point right now is whether he can juggle adequately the triple roles of leader, batsman and wicketkeeper.
His preference is to bat at No 4, but will depend on game situations, and will need to be weighed up with the strain he is likely to take in the onerous task of keeping wicket.
As possibly the best batsman in the SA line-up, it does not seem wise to have him come in at No 5 when he could win matches at No 3 or No 4.
Until South Africa unearths a new wicketkeeper-batsman of quality for the international stage, though, De Villiers will probably have to slide one or two positions in the order as game situations demand.
The SA skipper currently occupies second spot on the ODI batting rankings, behind the Proteas’ answer to the wristy sub-continent exponents – Hashim Amla.
Amla averages 55.17 in the 50-over format, and his last score in an ODI was the 52 in the third match against Australia late last year. Ultimately South Africa lost that series 2-1, with Amla as captain in place of De Villiers, who had a hand injury at the time. -Cape Argus