DURBAN – This is a big week for South African cricket. Sensationally, they find themselves having to protect their proud home record against the unlikeliest of enemies.
A young, inexperienced Sri Lanka upset more than just the odds when they stole a one-wicket triumph in Durban over the weekend. They shook all of those who had taken it for granted that SA would steamroll them, the combination of pace and experience too much for a group of travellers already softened up in Australia.
Far from it.
Cricket has a funny way of working itself out. Sri Lanka found themselves in very similar shoes in 2014, when a Hashim Amla-led SA won the first of two away Tests. The victory in Galle meant SA could, at worst, share a series on Sri Lankan soil, but they had one hand on the goods if they avoided defeat in Colombo.
Of course, clinging on by the skin of their teeth – and a quite remarkable tweak to the hamstring of Imran Tahir – the Proteas held on for that draw, and sealed a historic 1-0 series triumph. Sri Lanka looked on, annoyed by their own shortcomings in Galle, their misfortune in Colombo, but also by what they saw as gamesmanship on the part of SA.
They also congratulated some remarkable performances from the visitors, especially in the crucial first Test. Dean Elgar and JP Duminy scored vital centuries in a first innings total of 455/9 declared. Faf du Plessis added a patient 80.
Then Dale Steyn, with figures of 5/54 and 4/45, broke the back of the Sri Lankan resistance. Steyn, Elgar, Du Plessis, Vernon Philander, Quinton de Kock and then skipper Amla are the survivors from that memorable trip.
Sri Lanka have just three, in Lahiru Thirimanne, pace-man Suranga Lakmal and Kaushal Silva. But they all know how the 2014 series went down. They all remember the margins, and they know that, ironically, the shoe is now on the other foot for the Port Elizabeth Test.
Two-match series are very dangerous things. There is almost no time or room for manoeuvre. If the first Test goes amiss, all a team can fight for is a share of the honours. And, immediately, all the winning team starts thinking of is how not to lose – instead of how to win again, especially away from home.
If Sri Lanka are gung-ho, and go down in a flurry of shots that go to fielders instead of gaps this time, they will be criticised for giving it away. So, caution is viewed as being responsible, when the same opposite was seen as heroic just days ago.
Go figure. That likely shift in mind-set and responsibility may play into SA hands, because Sri Lanka – Kusal Perera in particular – were emancipated by the knowledge that they had nothing to lose in Durban.
Now, as they sit a week away from making some truly astonishing history, they have a lot more to part with. How they play in the windy city will say much about their ambitions, and whether they have shifted or not.
They arrived in SA looking to compete, especially after a chastening visit of Australia. Now, they are in the thick of it, with a target on their backs.
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That is from their own doing, a product of their own brilliance the other day. Now, they will bear the brunt of a SA riposte.
The cat and the mouse have switched roles, and how the narrative plays out this weekend will determine who gets the cheese.
Play in Port Elizabeth starts at 10am on Thursday.
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