SL underdogs but confidence level high

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2016-12-18

Sri Lanka's current tour of South Africa is possibly the biggest and the toughest this young team has encountered since their trip to England in May 2016. One has to understand and accept that England in May was different with many young players in the side struggling to find their feet and trying to make an impression in very difficult conditions. It was the type of tour that could have questioned the very ability of a player and also bring in a lot of self-doubts into their game. This is especially true when you come across conditions that are cold, foreign and bowlers who thrive in such settings. Anderson and Broad, though struggling in India at present, were menacing and challenging to the best in the world in cold and seaming conditions of England, and hence, the Sri Lankan players on that tour were no match to them at all. The defeat and the capitulation wasn't a surprise for the knowledgeable cricket fan, though it was quite obvious that Sri Lanka couldn't have got any worse from that pounding both in the tests and ODI's.

Where I give credit to the Lankans is in the way or manner they recovered against Australia. Had the Lankans encountered say Zimbabwe, or even Bangladesh or the West Indies, and then won the subsequent series after England, that wouldn't have been too much of a surprise, or something to speak of too loudly. But let's remember that what they encountered immediately after a tough and a challenging tour where many players abilities were questioned and positions on the line, was the best test team then, which was Australia. Now if that wasn't one of the hardest and difficult tests a team encounters, I wonder what is! The Aussies made it demanding for Sri Lanka by coming over two weeks in advance to prepare and take on the challenge of a team that had hit a new low in confidence. I believe the turn around that took place, and the way the team has since gelled and faced the challenge thrown at them, makes them a special bunch of guys who are capable of rising to the occasion. This was further confirmed by the advancement of the unit in Zimbabwe and the manner they played there.

The tour of South Africa starts with such a backdrop. Sri Lanka will definitely start as the underdogs and I wonder whether that worries them at all. However, they start as a team that can take on the very best and defeat them which they amply demonstrated at home against Australia with a comprehensive series win.

Whilst the confidence level is high, and the team has played together for a while and are looking a good bunch of lads, one has to be cautioned not to get too far ahead of themselves expecting miracles in South Africa. To start with it's quite clear that home teams do their work on the visiting teams most efficiently, and the fact that Sri Lanka is not playing a Test match in Durban where spinners thrive, is confirmation of it. It was in the Test match in 2011 - which incidentally was the last time Sri Lanka visited that country - where Rangana Herath with nine wickets in the last test of Dilshan's captaincy gave the Lankans their one and only test win in the said country up to date.

In the current tour, Durban doesn't figure as a venue in any of the Test matches, and instead the hosts have opted for the faster and bouncy venues which are ideal for their bowling make up. Now one can't be complaining about such arrangements as this was exactly what Sri Lanka would do when encountering teams visiting this country. This is obviously the home advantage which has been very well exploited! Against Australia, Sri Lanka's plan was spin, and they did provide surfaces that assisted the spinners. The issue with the Aussies was their inability to exploit such conditions despite having Lyon, who was their most successful off spinner in the history of Aussie cricket.

In South Africa, Sri Lanka are bound to be given green and hard tracks where the faster bowlers with dependency on seam will enjoy. The challenge for the Sri Lankans will be to be able to utilize the said conditions as a seam bowling unit. If that part of their game gets perfected then I am sure the Lankans will be a tough team to beat, and who knows might have a few days in the sun during the tour.

My purpose to write a background to this tour in this column is to emphasize what this team has gone through and where they are coming from to understand what they can deliver as a unit.
Hence, I have very little doubt, despite the tour being another very tough one, the Lankans have the ammunition to fire back. The question is to be able to do it judiciously and win moments in the battle. I am sure this team has the ability to surprise.

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