DURBAN: The Tests may have thrown up a surprise for the ages, but two games in, the ODI series is going roughly as expected. South Africa have prospered on the back of excellent performances from the usual suspects: Quinton de Kock has made 175 runs so far, Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi have nine wickets between them, and Imran Tahir has been indomitable through the middle overs.
Sri Lanka, meanwhile, have been woeful in what has undoubtedly been their worst format over the past three years. In the first match, their bowlers lacked menace as they attempted to defend a modest score. In the second game, they restricted South Africa to a gettable target, only for the batting to fall apart spectacularly. It is difficult to pin down a single area of concern for Sri Lanka, because right now, it seems as if there are chronic problems on just about every front. When the batsmen get it right, the bowlers are wayward. If both departments click, somehow seven catches go down in the field.
For South Africa, the third ODI is not merely a chance to wrap up the series, but an opportunity for the less-heralded members of the side to lock down their World Cup berths. Opener Reeza Hendricks will no doubt be aware that while he has puttered to 29 and 1 in the two ODIs, Aiden Markram has been scorching up the domestic Momentum Cup, hitting 169, 139 and 85 in successive matches. Wiaan Mulder may also feel under threat from Dwaine Pretorius. They had both played in the first ODI (neither was needed with the bat), before Pretorius was omitted for the second match. But if Mulder wants to keep his current position as South Africa’s first-choice allrounder, he may need to quickly begin imposing himself with both bat and ball.
There are few teams Imran Tahir enjoys playing against more than Sri Lanka. In 12 matches against them, Tahir has picked up 29 wickets at an average of 15.31. Sri Lanka have struggled against many bowlers over the past two years, but Tahir has arguably been their greatest tormentor. In this series, he has five wickets at 13, and is the major reason Sri Lanka seem to run aground in the middle overs. It seems unlikely that Sri Lanka will be able to put an end to Tahir’s dominance at Kingsmead – generally one of the more spin-friendly venues in the country.
“Playing for Sri Lanka is not a gift,” captain Lasith Malinga said after the second ODI. “You have to take the opportunities that you get at this level.” They were strong words from a clearly annoyed captain, with his team now having slumped to five consecutive defeats after he took the limited-overs reins at the end of last year. Malinga’s own bowling has been good, and his tactics have been excellent, but a doubt still remains about his man-management skills. Sri Lanka may have been poor in ODIs long before Malinga became captain, but unless he can inspire his charges over the next few days, Sri Lanka run the very real risk of going into the World Cup without having won a single ODI this year.
South Africa may be tempted to bring in Pretorius for Mulder, but might stick with the winning XI.
There is substantial rainfall forecast for Sunday in Durban, so we may be in for a stop-start match. The last two games at Kingsmead have not yielded scores of over 300, but plenty of big totals have been made at the venue over the years.