JOHANNESBURG - What to do in Dambulla when you’re 1-0 up in a series and been given the day off? The Proteas may have chosen a visit to the historic caves near the city, which date back more than two thousand years. Or a couple of coffee shops beloved by travelling hipsters. Or even a market where deals can be made or lost.
Monday would have been the first genuinely relaxing day for the players on what has largely been a troublesome tour of Sri Lanka. The Proteas were embarrassed in the two Test matches, but soothed their pain with a comprehensive win in the opening ODI at the Dambulla International Stadium on Sunday.
Not only did the win come as a relief but there were several individual performances from which those players could draw confidence in terms of the immediate goal of pursuing a series win, and also as a foundation ahead of a crucial season in which they will want to establish (or in some cases re-establish) their credentials ahead of the World Cup.
The players have been honest about taking advantage of conditions with which they were more familiar in the first match - maybe not the Wanderers, but a pitch akin to the ‘Bullring’ and certainly something more to their liking than had been the case at any other stage previously on the tour.
Sri Lanka are almost certain to ensure that similar conditions won’t be replicated in Wednesday's second match, a day/night affair at the same venue. It’s likely the same strip will be used, but it will naturally be more worn, and possibly slower, more to the home team’s liking. The Sri Lankans will certainly not want to hand the advantage to South Africa as early as they did in the first match, when they lost their top order inside the first 10 overs.
“We talked about what South Africa’s strengths were, and their strength is in the first eight to ten overs - we have to get through that period,” said the home team’s batting coach Thilan Samaraweera. “After that, they have a very inexperienced bowling attack.”
Indeed, that was something the two Pereras, Thilan and Kusal proved with their 92-run partnership for the sixth wicket off just 55 balls. Seam bowling all-rounders Wiaan Mulder and Andile Phehlukwayo bowled poorly after the excellent start provided by Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi.
They will be desperate to atone for their errors with the ball but it will be interesting to see if they get that opportunity on Wednesday. While it may be deemed prudent by the selectors to not attempt to fix something if it ain’t broke, they should heed lessons from the mistake made before the second Test in Colombo last week.
On that occasion they picked just one frontline spinner in conditions which were totally tilted in the favour of spin, leaving poor Keshav Maharaj to bowl more than 80 overs in just two and half days. Sri Lanka went in with three spinners, and if the hosts do leave the pitch to dry out in Dambulla they are likely to maintain that structure for their starting team.
In those circumstances the Proteas will need to give serious consideration to playing the extra spinner - in this case Maharaj - which should mean that one of Phehlukwayo or Mulder sits out. Of course with the World Cup in mind and given the composition of the starting team that Ottis Gibson would prefer for matches in English conditions next June. With two seam bowling all-rounders to start, playing an extra spinner would not fit.
However it may also be worth Gibson’s while to assess a structure with two frontline spinners in case South Africa have to confront dry conditions in England. There is also a case to be made for building on the confidence of the side’s first win on this tour and looking to put the hosts under pressure, by picking a side best able to take advantage of conditions.
Thoughts will turn to that on Tuesday when the side is set to train under lights. Monday was made for enjoying the sights, tastes and sounds of the central city.