Proteas must go big in 1st inns

Hashim Amla (AFP)
Hashim Amla (AFP)

Cape Town – Whether you want to call it the M1, N1 or A1, the one thing you can reasonably brand Colombo’s Sinhalese Sports Club ground is a “national road” for its traditional kindness toward batting.

That’s no small comfort to have as South Africa, 1-0 up in the two-Test series, set their sights from Thursday either on a first-time clean sweep of Sri Lanka in their own country, or at the very least ensuring they do not lose at the SSC.

Just in terms of its statistical history, it is probably among the best places you could wish to play at if you are aware that simply not losing will be enough to clinch the series spoils.

Considering Hashim Amla’s bold philosophy in his excellent first outing as new Test skipper of the Proteas, he is quite likely to actively discourage a negative mindset taking root among his troops; he may well declare “survival cricket” a definite no-no, at least at the outset.

The Proteas seem to hold all the aces, given that supposedly spin-friendly Galle was where the ‘Lankans were deemed likeliest to push for victory -- instead they were thumped.

Now their difficult, make-or-break task has to be to try to ensure that they can provide conditions conducive to doing a 20-wickets job on the strong South African batting line-up.

Given that an unlikely green-top would only play gleefully into the hands of the in-form Messrs Steyn and Morkel (16 wickets between them on the initially anticipated Galle “turner”), that route seems very ill-advised for the hosts, so they will probably seek instead another pitch that offers spinners assistance as swiftly as possible.

Even then, Sri Lanka’s frontline slow bowler, Rangana Herath, returned less-than-influential figures of one for 148 and then two for 84 in the first Test, so he hardly commands a psychological stranglehold over these opponents heading into the decisive one.

In the past, of course, mere mention of the immortal surname “Muralitharan” used to give South Africa the automatic yips, and he has long been safely out of the picture.

The first thing Amla will obviously be dead keen to get right again is win the toss and bat, as occurred in Galle where he was able to pretty quickly dictate the pace and mood of the game by SA running up 455 for nine declared and occupying the crease for 166 overs and 665 minutes.

If the tourists can repeat that trick and possibly go even further “north” in scoreboard terms than that total, to 500-plus, they will almost certainly have placed themselves in an impregnable position in the game.

But even if the Proteas are forced to bat second this time, the SSC venue has, in recent seasons, been barely less kind to teams taking second dig.

It was just three Test matches ago, a ridiculously tame and mammoth-scoring stalemate between the ‘Lankans and Subcontinent rivals India, that the visitors actually eclipsed the home first-innings total of 642 for four declared (Kumar Sangakkara 219, Mahela Jayawardene 174) by replying with 707 runs of their own (Sachin Tendulkar 203, Suresh Raina 120).

One mistake Sri Lanka are unlikely to make on Thursday, if they win the toss, is do what they inexplicably did in the last Test at the SSC, in July 2012, and insert the opposition: Pakistan said “thank you very much” and Mohammad Hafeez struck 196 as they amassed 551 for six declared.

All of the last three Tests at the ground have been draws, including the middle one being characterised by Australia managing 488 in the third innings of the match after trailing by a seemingly ominous 157 runs on the first knock.

Since December 2007, the SSC has seen five draws from the seven Tests played there.

The Proteas’ record at the ground gives a bit less reason for optimism, however: they won back in 1993 when Brett Schultz truly terrorised the ‘Lankan batsmen, and drew in 2000, but the last two Tests (2004 and 2006 respectively) have seen crushing home wins by 313 runs and an innings and 153 runs respectively.

So if the Proteas are feeling too complacently hunky-dory about where they stand in the current series, that is one fact that Amla may do well to bring attention to in the interests of eliminating over-confidence ...

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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