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Sri Lanka must stick to their spinning strength against South Africa

The chances of Rangana Herath - Sri Lanka's premier spinner being available for the first quarterfinal game against South Africa are bleak. But the island nation should still go ahead with the strategy to pick two spinners. Learn why.

Sri Lanka players train on Tuesday ahead of their quarter final against South Africa

In a crucial Pool A game a week ago, Australia handed Sri Lanka a mauling beyond repair – on Wednesday, Sri Lanka are set to play South Africa in the opening quarterfinal of the tournament at the same venue. One might presume the wicket shouldn’t behave any differently from last week.

In a reactive measure to the Australia onslaught, the entire Lanka bowling composition was altered for the Scotland game and understandably so. But as they prepare for a knockout face-off at the same Sydney wicket one more time, their primary focus has to be the opposition and not the pitch. And even if it might be against popular advice, Sri Lanka must stick to their strength – spin.

Experience of winning big matches

One distinct advantage that Sri Lanka have over their opponents for the quarterfinal is the players with the right pedigree for these occasion. In Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Tilakratne Dilshan, the subcontinent side have their nucleus made up of men who’ve all been there and done that.

In contrast, South Africa’s nucleus is made up of men who’ve been there, and failed. Of course history loses all relevance the moment the first ball is bowled, but in a battle of equals with all at stake, the wise money should always favour the side that handles pressure better.

His team’s abysmal record in the big tournament knockout games is certainly stinging AB De Villiers as he gears up for the contest, no matter how hard he tries to convince the press otherwise. And hence, it’s imperative for the Sri Lankans to once again test the Proteas with what’s been their Achilles Heel in knockout games.

As has been elaborately discussed here, South Africa’s batting is nowhere as unforgiving as some of their recent performances in bilateral contests might have led you to think. Outside skipper AB De Villiers and ace top order batsman Hashim Amla, they’re vulnerable under pressure.

Faf Du Plessis’ return for Wednesday’s game and Rilee Russouw having been given a place in the middle order shall certainly add to their firepower but the moment a wicket or two fall in quick succession, as is evident from the games against India and Pakistan, they falter rather easily.

The South African problem with slow bowling

Traditionally, pace and bounce haven’t troubled the South African batsmen as they’re adequately conditioned batting on quick wickets in their own backyard. The trouble usually starts the moment the pace is taken off the ball. It requires an additional dimension to your batting repertoire to reach out for the ball, middle it and at the same time find gaps too. By no stretch of imagination can it be suggested that the likes of Amla and De Villiers will struggle doing that, but that’s definitely not their bread and butter game – as is the case with the subcontinent batsmen in ODIs.

Be it Roger Harper’s top-spin at Karachi, sliders from Sanath Jayasuriya at Durban or off-cutters from Jacob Oram at Dhaka, struggling against the lack of pace in the big games has been a cultural phenomenon in South African batting. And it won’t be a stretch to claim this is their weakest batting lineup going into a World Cup knockout game; the presence of two world-beaters greatly overstating their potency.

It is therefore of paramount importance for Angelo Mathews to realize where his team’s strength lies. Sri Lanka’s most realistic chance to trump the Proteas is in putting up a competitive total and straightaway taking the pace off their bowling while defending it.

In Lasith Malinga, the islanders have a champion who is slightly off his game and the other seamers hardly inspire any confidence. The pace the likes of Suranga Lakmal and Nuwan Kulasekara manage to generate has never been deemed good enough for Australian wickets. Should they fail to generate the reverse swing in the middle overs, Mathews will have little options to fall back on. One wonders whether that’s the gamble worth taking.

Spinners on the other hand, are bound to trouble the South African middle order under lights and even if the toss doesn’t favour Mathews, they can still tighten up the runflow in crucial stages.

Brave decision required of Angelo Mathews

The reports in the media are not encouraging about Rangana Herath’s availability. That, coupled with the most recent memories of the spinners’ travails at Sydney may force Sri Lanka to commit a reactive error in selection they could regret big time in retrospect. Sure, Seekkuge Prasanna and Sachithra Senanayake aren’t the biggest names doing rounds in the game and the move to include both could backfire should either feel overwhelmed by the occasion and falter.

But that’s one chance that promises to pay rich dividends in the event it clicks. The variety the duo bring to the table allows Mathews to use them in tandem as well as pairing either one with a seam bowling option. Medium pacers such as Thisara Perera and Mathews himself too will have a critical role to play in the middle overs keeping the batsmen guessing with their cutters while also angling one in if there’s reverse on offer.

Not to forger, in Dilshan, Sri Lanka have a man for the big moments. The veteran may not be the biggest turner of the ball but perfectly knows the art of delivering a containing spell against the run of play and has the impeccable knack of picking wickets out of nowhere – Virat Kohli at Wankhede, 2011 anyone?

Of course, this strategy to slow the game down may have completely backfired against the Australians. But it’s a different day, a different side and a vastly greater occasion.

The spinners might very well be obliterated to the effect it devastates their confidence for good if De Villiers happens to have that kind of day. But the only question Angelo Mathews should be pondering over is whether he’s willing to risk it all even when his best spinner is not available to him. It will take some bravery from Angelo Mathews to deal with this unforeseen situation, and we are about to find out whether he is a brave captain or not.

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