Sri Lanka versus South Africa – one of cricket’s intense rivalries

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The Sri Lankan team that toured South Africa in 2001 was in for a rude shock as they were given a pitch with low bounce for their two warm-up games. The team knew that what’s in store when the Tests and ODIs begin is quite the contrast with the ball flying. It was South Africa’s way of denying the Sri Lankans any match practice.

Three years later, when the Proteas visited Sri Lanka they were given a taste of their own medicine. They played the warm-ups on wickets that had good carry and bounce but the Tests obviously were played on rank turners.

The captains of both sides have agreed since then that the teams need to be more considerate about the others with regards to preparations lead up to a series. They have even gone beyond and said that for internationals, the home team should not have too much pitch advantage making contests an even one.

However, nothing seems to change. Spare a thought for opening batsman Dean Elgar, who in his last Test series in Sri Lanka didn’t face a single ball of pace as spin dominated the contest from ball one.

So, ICC events provide a good contest for these teams to check out their true strengths. Fair to say that South Africa have dominated World Cup contests between the teams since they were readmitted to the ICC in 1991.

The first contest between the teams was won by Sri Lanka in 1992 at the Basin Reserve. But since then, it has been always South Africa. They have won four of the remaining five contests with the 2003 game being tied.

The fact that these two teams have had contrasting results in World Cups make it hard to believe that Sri Lanka have had such a torrid record against the Proteas in the sport’s showpiece event.

Sri Lanka is a nation that reached three World Cup finals, winning one title and ending runners-up twice. South Africa, meanwhile, have never gone beyond the semis and have famously choked despite having things under their control in key games.

When Sri Lanka won in 1996 and reached the finals in 2011, they did not meet South Africa. The 2007 tournament, where once again Sri Lanka reached the finals, Lasith Malinga turned the game on its head taking four wickets in four balls. Chasing 210 to win, South Africa were 206 for five, but suddenly found them in a hole at 207 for nine with Malinga becoming unplayable. Then that edged boundary and they won by the thinnest of margins – one wicket.

Although South Africa have not lost a World Cup fixture to Sri Lanka since losing the inaugural encounter, the 2003 game is remembered for the wrong reasons.

As hosts, South Africa had put up a splendid show and they were overwhelming favourites to win the title having come so close in 1999. However, they miscalculated the Duckworth-Lewis sheet for the rain affected game and ended up playing for a tie instead of a win and were knocked out of the first round itself. There was such an outcry all over South Africa that captain Shaun Pollock, one of game’s nicest men had to step down.

The encounter in 2019 was totally one-sided with the Proteas winning by nine wickets while the one in 2015 was an anti-climax.

Sri Lanka had gained momentum throughout the tournament and if you had asked them where they wanted to play a World Cup knockout, they would have picked Sydney. But the batting flopped. Handing J.P. Duminy, a hat-trick was beyond comprehension and Sri Lanka were knocked out. Since then, it has been all downhill for the former champions.

How will they fare in 2023? This time they begin their campaign in Delhi taking on a South African side that did struggle to qualify automatically for the tournament and got there only after Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

Sri Lanka’s main worry is not having all their players available. They have been plagued by injuries and a full-strength Sri Lankan side would have given South Africa a good run for the money. However, the depleted side means that South Africa will start favourites.

Pitches have been so good in India in recent years that unless you make over 300 runs batting first, your fate is sealed no matter how good your bowling is as England found out in the curtain-raiser on Wednesday.

There is a bit of debate lead up to the first game whether Sri Lanka picked the right squad for the competition. Well, at least you haven’t seen the dramas of last World Cup where a player who hadn’t featured in an ODI for more than four years made a guest appearance.

We have avoided that farce this time and you’ve got to say the selectors have done a decent job.

One mistake perhaps was playing the Asia Cup on turning tracks. Dunith Wellalage who looked unplayable in Colombo will get a taste of what international cricket is in India. He is young and if he doesn’t make an impact, there’s no point in discarding him away. You’ve got to back him. You’ve got to do the same thing with some of other young talents you have identified.