Proteas must solve Sri Lanka puzzle right off the bat

Imran Tahir, one-day specialist? (AFP)

Imran Tahir, one-day specialist? (AFP)

One-day cricket is unrecognisable since the first time South Africa played Sri Lanka in their country. Not only were there no fielding restrictions, but the ODIs were also casually interspersed between the Test matches.

Kepler Wessels’s team won a single game in Sri Lanka in 1993, when a scoring rate of four runs an over was regarded as somewhere between adequate to good. AB de Villiers’s team won another game there last year – but lost four others.
And that’s it. Two wins in 21 years, and 13 losses.

The record between the teams on South African soil is markedly different. Fifteen wins in 23 games and just seven defeats for the Proteas. Rarely does a bilateral win-loss ratio more starkly reveal the difference that conditions can make.

On that basis, there should be little expectation for Proteas fans when the teams begin their three-match series at the Premadasa Stadium in Colombo on Sunday. Sri Lanka recently beat England, away and in all three formats, and confidence is abundant. History says De Villiers and his team are substantial underdogs. And not many are arguing.

“We are a very settled side,” said coach Russell Domingo this week, before immediately referring to the most obvious change to the team that was thrashed on these shores last August: “JP Duminy batted at three but Jacques [Kallis] is back now, obviously, and will slot back into that position so we’ll wait and see.”

Thrown into turmoil
Actually, although the squad may be “settled”, the starting XI has been thrown into turmoil by Jacques Kallis’s determination to extend his international career until next year’s World Cup, just seven months away. At least 13 players can claim to have made themselves regulars during the great all-rounder’s sabbatical – a selection headache, to say the least. The truth is, just days before the first game here, nobody was sure who would be in the team.

Three or four “unlucky” players could miss out. All-rounder Ryan McLaren would be a straight swap. Faf du Plessis has done little to justify his recall although, as captain of the T20 side, he is part of the “leadership group” and close to the coach. Duminy, too, is a senior player and, described by Domingo as a “frontline spinner”, will be impossible to omit. De Villiers, rightly, is undroppable.

A specialist bowler may be sacrificed if Kallis can be relied upon with the ball, but if not, David Miller is the man who will have to make way for the return of Kallis, despite his youth and match-winning zest. Which made it all the more interesting to watch Kallis in the nets with Miller on Tuesday.

Disinclined to offer advice or even opinion for most of his 22-year first-class career, for fear of “interfering”, Kallis intervened during Miller’s net session on Tuesday and offered a gentle, reassuring serving of experience and advice.

Pertinently, Miller was not even facing bowlers. Domingo was giving him “throw-downs” and the left-hander was struggling with his timing. Was he trying too hard? Whatever Kallis saw from his resting position on the team cool box, he felt moved to speak.

“Sri Lanka are one of best sides in the world, tough to beat home or away,” Domingo said. “No South African team has won a one-day series here before so it’s a chance for us to make a bit of history. When you play a side like Sri Lanka in a semi-final, or a must-win game in a World Cup, and you know you have beaten them in their home conditions, it gives you a little mental edge,” Domingo said.

Like everyone else, he is acutely aware that the 2015 World Cup in Australasia begins in a little over seven months.

“Mental edges” may count for something, but never as much as the edges on the field. Spinners, as always, command much of the attention in Sri Lanka. Imran Tahir has been given his fourth lease of life as South Africa’s “number one”. It is a situation that befuddles the 35-year-old, Karachi-born leg-spinner.

Is he still confident? Was his confidence dented by being dropped – three times?

“I don’t really know what to say about that I have always been confident. I wasn’t sure where I stood sometimes, but I justified my place in the team again,” Tahir said.

“In Test cricket a batsman is not going to take a chance and play risky shots. It is different in limited overs cricket because he must do something.”

It is the answer to a question so many South African supporters have asked since Tahir made his debut for his adopted country. Why so expensive and ineffective in Tests but a wicket-taker in limited-overs cricket?

It is one they may rightly ask again in Sri Lanka, but it is unlikely to provide the answer to the outcome of either the ODI or Test series.

For once, it will be the performance of South Africa’s batsmen – and who they are – which is likely to determine how the team fares. Weight of runs can make even the most short-sighted and under-equipped bowling attack a potent force in these parts.

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