Quicker pitch gives South Africa hope

Saturday, 12 July 2014 01:29 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

 South Africa’s Jacques Kallis (C) passes a rugby ball next to captain AB de Villiers (R) and teammate Ryan McLaren during a practice session ahead of their final One Day International cricket match against Sri Lanka in Hambantota 11 July – REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte
  ESPNcricinfo Hambantota: Sri Lanka’s city of the future. Where beautiful four-lane highways and herds of water buffalo coexist in strength. Where wild elephants rule the roads, and three-foot cobras are among the pedestrians. Where vast flocks of birds have, for thousands of years, thoughtlessly chosen to migrate right where the Sri Lankan authorities would build an international airport. But it is not just the impromptu safari opportunities in Sri Lanka’s untamed south-east that have South Africa feeling a little more at home. The pitch, they feel, has pace and bounce. Not your usual condescending subcontinent kind of pace and bounce, where the keeper might take the ball at waist-height occasionally. This is the proper stuff. Quicks have run through teams at the venue, and though South Africa have never played an ODI at Hambantota, they have won three out of four T20 internationals there. If there is one venue in the country that will make Dale Steyn’s bruised right hand heal up double-quick, this is it. The team management will make a call on whether Steyn will play on Saturday, depending on how he performs at Friday’s training. Sri Lanka are desperate to finish on a winning note, to seal a series they are expected to win. Their victory at Pallekele had all the ingredients of a classic Sri Lanka win; the batting collapse, the fight back, spinners ripping through the opposition and a few Lasith Malinga yorkers for good measure. They have not lost a series so far in 2014, and they will think the first series at home is a poor place to start. Beyond the cricket field, there are reports of a memo floating around SLC headquarters alleging the team is physically unfit and has attitude problems. At first glance, those claims seem discordant with reality. A fast bowler delivered over 104 overs in back-to-back Tests in England, and the batsmen who made big knocks did not seem to flag at any stage in the series. But the memo also claims the national side’s fielding is below par, and given the number of dropped catches over the past six weeks, the players will find it difficult to argue with that observation. Angelo Mathews and his men will hope to make the loss in Colombo a blip on their 2014 record. But if the South Africa pace attack comes out firing on a bouncy deck, the hosts will have bigger worries than just a disapproving report. When Malinga was going through a hot-and-cold stage about a year ago, Nuwan Kulasekara held the attack together with his steady seam and sometimes extravagant inswing. Now that Malinga is back to near his best, Kulasekara has fallen away somewhat. Perhaps he goes looking for wickets instead of bowling line-and-length, or maybe he is struggling a little for rhythm. Whatever the case, Kulasekara has gone wicketless in each of his last five ODIs. A key component in Sri Lanka’s World Cup plans, Kulasekara will hope to rediscover his form soon. If he has the wind assisting him at Hambantota, his threat could be magnified. Tall, sharp, and accurate, Ryan McLaren has been the best of South Africa’s quicks this series, probing away in the channel with a modicum of movement off the pitch, and the odd ball kicking up off the surface. On a slightly bouncier Pallekele, McLaren had engineered the late collapse that reeled Sri Lanka in, and if conditions are even better for him at Hambantota, he has the style and form to be a handful. He is a capable hitter down the order as well, as was seen in the first ODI, when he struck up a fruitful stand with David Miller.

 Lankan squad for final ODI

Angelo Mathews (captain), Lahiru Thirimanne (vice captain), T.M. Dilshan, Kusal Janith, Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardena, Ashan Priyanjan, Kithruwan Vithanage, Lasith Malinga, Nuwan Kulasaekera, Suranga Lakmal, Thisara Perera, Sachithra Senanayake, Ajantha Mendis, Rangana Herath and Dilruwan Perera
 Tillakaratne Dilshan (R) kicks a soccer ball next to teammates Kithuruwan Vithanage (C) and Ajantha Mendis during a practice session ahead of their final One Day International cricket match against South Africa in Hambantota 11 July – REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte