SL ready for more verbal bouts if needled
Among the lasting memories of the dramatic final day at Headingley was Sri Lanka's systematic verbal attack on Joe Root. For nearly half an hour the team fired barbs and bouncers at the batsman. Almost every player had a turn, like it was a team-building exercise at a shooting range. The celebrations at Root's wicket were as aggressive as the attitude that had preceded it.
It was a rare verbal onslaught from a side who largely play a more measured brand of cricket. Their collective outburst had come at the end of a tour in which they had felt besieged by media, administrators, the public and importantly, the opposition. Root had been among the chief agitators when England pushed for wickets towards the end of the Lord's Test. Sri Lanka did not pass up the chance to reciprocate.
As Sri Lanka wind up for another major tour, Angelo Mathews drew a line in the sand. "I don't think South Africa will have a go at us verbally, because the relationship between the teams is very good," he said. AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla seem less-inclined to whip up their troops to a frenzy like past South Africa captains have done. Even Graeme Smith had mellowed with the tide in any case.
But there was also a warning from Mathews. "We're not usually a very aggressive team on the field, but we can be. We need to control our emotions, but sometimes you've got to give it back to the opponents." Perhaps coincidentally, it was the abuse Sri Lanka received on their tour of South Africa in 2002 that helped form the "give-as-good-as-you-get" policy Mathews and his men still adhere to.
Some South Africa fast bowlers can be fired up, at times, between Vernon Philander's casual arrogance and Dale Steyn's "angry eyes". But the visitors will also probably be aware of Sri Lanka's reflex when a team-mate is under fire. The siege mentality Sri Lanka developed in England was fuel for their success there.
"When a situation occurs, we back ourselves and we back each member of the team," Mathews said. "If somebody is under pressure in the team - which happens quite a lot - you back the player and give him a lot of support. We've been doing that quite a lot in the recent past, especially in England. We've backed every decision that we've made. We've overcome those situations and we've played like a family."
In past years, Sri Lanka's on-field confrontations have not been anchored in confidence, but this team has the belief to match opponents' belligerence. They have won every trophy since February, and have 12 ODI wins for two losses this year.
"The six months that we've had - starting with the Asia Cup and the World T20 - is probably the best team environment I've been in. We just want to carry on the good things that we do. We obviously make mistakes, but the quicker you learn, the quicker you get over it. We can't get complacent thinking we've had six good months. We have to play our best cricket once again.
"We've got to balance the aggression out and not go overboard. You have to perform as well, and that's the key. You've got to do your work. I strongly believe in that. We've clicked as a team in all three departments, and we find ways of winning from tough situations. That has been the key for us."
Through the fighting talk, there was the refrain of respect for the opponents as well. South Africa have never won an ODI series in Sri Lanka, but this side bats deep and is effectively at full strength.
"South Africa have a very well-balanced team. The seven or eight batters that they've got are match-winners. They've got some really interesting bowlers, and they're a very good fielding unit. They come with an all-round package. We've got to be on our toes all the time.
"The England series is in the past now. It's history. It's done and dusted. Now we've got to move on and play our best cricket to beat the South Africans."
Re: SL ready for more verbal bouts if needled
South Africa wary of spin and heat
A tour to Sri Lanka typically involves turning tracks, talented tweakers, heat and humidity. South Africa thrive on pace and bounce and the weather at home is rarely extreme. Overcoming those factors present the main challenge when the series begins on Sunday.
Last July, the visitors had succumbed to spin and stifling heat to lose the ODI series 4-1 and caused intense introspection about their fifty-over strategy.
Some of the reasons for their underperformance were self-explanatory. South Africa were beset by injury and absentees - Hashim Amla manned his usual opening position only twice and he played only three games. Dale Steyn was rested for the tour, Jacques Kallis had opted out of the Champions Trophy and was yet to recommit to the one-day side. There was uncertainty over team composition and a fair amount of inexperience.
But there were other areas which raised more questions. Ajantha Mendis and Rangana Herath shared 16 wickets between them in the series while South Africa's spinners, Aaron Phangiso and JP Duminy only managed five. Had South Africa slipped back into their struggles both against spin and in finding a decent exponent of their own? Sri Lanka had two centurions across the five matches, South Africa had none. Was the correct batting line-up in place and was it being used to the best of its ability?
AB de Villiers believes South Africa have the answers this time. "We did quite a few things wrong last year but we've got a more experienced team now," he said.
Amla is fit, Steyn is in the squad but most importantly, Kallis is back. Despite missing the warm-up match with an upper back problem, de Villiers declared Kallis "ready to go," in the first match but cautioned that he may not be able to function as a fully-fledged all-rounder. "It's all a matter of how much he can bowl," de Villiers said.
With South Africa's pace contingent including Steyn, Morne Morkel, Vernon Philander, Ryan McLaren and a choice of left-armers in Wayne Parnell and Beuran Hendricks, Kallis' bowling role may be minimised anyway and his contribution as a batsman and mentor will take greater precedence. Already, de Villiers said he "has been working with some of the younger guys on how to play spin properly," because South Africa want to show improvement from last year.
While South Africa hope Kallis and his influence will takes care of one side of the spin coin, they have identified Imran Tahir as the man to deal with the other. "Immi is a match winner; he has got that x-factor. He is in a very good space with ball in hand at the moment and he is bowling really well," de Villiers said. "I look forward to using him in some very big moments."
Tahir has embraced the responsibility and is eager to perform. "I have always been really confident, but maybe in the past I wasn't sure where I stood in the team. At the moment I am playing T20s, ODIs and Tests so that automatically gives me good confidence about myself," he said. "Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara are two of the greatest players of spin in the world. They obviously grew up facing spin rather than fast bowling so it will be a good challenge."
And then there is the weather. Temperatures in Sri Lanka are hovering near the 30-degree mark which does not sound so bad, but combined with humidity above 70%, the real feel is far more intense. De Villiers said last year South Africa found it "difficult to build proper innings and partnerships," and that does not even take into account the effects it would have had on the bowlers.
Since then South Africa have played in similar conditions in the UAE where they tried novel things like wearing ice vests and necklaces between overs and during drinks breaks and using an umbrella when they could for some cooling. South Africa's fitness trainer Greg King confirmed neither method would make an appearance this time because South Africa discovered they did not provide as much relief as they hoped.
Instead they will resort to old-fashioned tactics like staying hydrated and grinning and bearing it. De Villiers called it knowing "how to look after the weather better." He didn't explain what that means but later mused that there are "no secret recipes to a winning formula." For South Africa to have a successful run in Sri Lanka, they may do well to remember there are some things they can't control and the forces of nature are some of them.