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Plan to fail or fail to plan against South Africa

I have been watching the latest round of Test matches featuring India and England and Australia and South Africa. The standard has been okay, there were no tight finishes as such but the players have showed a reasonable level to skill to maintain the notion that Test cricket is alive and kicking. The English and South African players showed talent and temperament, the two Ts needed to succeed at Test level, and its not a surprise why they remain among the top Test teams.
 
Watching these teams I could not help but wonder about dear Sri Lanka. Yes, we won against Zimbabwe, and quite comprehensively too. In some ways this tour was a much needed confidence boost for our struggling players. Gone were the days when Zimbabwe was a reasonable proposition. During the 90s they boasted the likes of the Flower brothers, Heath Streak and a number of other players whose total sum was greater than their individual parts. It is therefore sad to see the Zimbabwe team reduced to its current state. They would struggle to beat most foreign club teams.
 
Now that our team has feasted on Zimbabwe and gained form playing substandard international opposition it's time to look at the next assignment – a tour of South Africa. South Africa is arguably the best side going around. The rankings may not reflect this but they have talented players and a gritty, never-say-die attitude that makes them the greatest team of this generation. They play an attacking brand of cricket but when the going gets tough they are certainly able to knuckle down and grind the opposition to dust completely demoralising them. The way they destroyed Australia in their own backyard was downright scary. Imagine playing them at home!
 
As a loyal but pragmatic Sri Lankan cricket fan I do not expect victory against South Africa. A good hard fight across the series would suffice for now. People speak of selectorial bias and other issues that plague Sri Lankan cricket. Our problem, however, does not lie in selection (or non-selection). Our problem lies in our grassroots – our schools and domestic system does not produce players that can succeed at home but more importantly when playing away. Our system is churning out spinners in abundance and also batsmen who are half-decent at playing spin but we are still not producing the right sort of international player i.e. pace bowler or batsman equipped to deal with pace. Its easy to blame the selectors for not selecting the right players but the harsh reality is that we simply do not have the right players in the first place. In other words our problem is systemic and not simply due to the selection of wrong personnel.

Yet, despite this major obstacle, I wonder why we did not use the opportunity in Zimbabwe to blood young talent. We had nothing to lose. Instead we played proven failures or others who would be nothing but useless in South Africa. Dilruwan Perera and Dhananjaya de Silva? Why? Also, Herath took a bucketload of wickets to add to his career tally, and yes, I really like him (who doesn’t?) but what was the point of overbowling himself against Zimbabwe? We should have utilized this golden opportunity to try out a four pronged pace attack. Herath is unlikely to have developed his bowling during the tour of Zimbabwe and so I see it as nothing but a wasted opportunity.
 
Unless you take 20 wickets against South Africa in South Africa your chances of defeating them are nil. And you cannot take 20 wickets in South Africa unless you have a strong seam-bowling attack. We are not blessed with that luxury. Our only victory, interestingly, came on a slow South African pitch and set up by Welagedara, a left arm paceman. 
 
In a hypothetical world a Sri Lankan seam bowling unit consisting of Prasad, Eranga, Chameera and Malinga have the potential to bowl South Africa out if things go their way. But in reality, the first three are injured and Malinga has selfishly made himself unavailable for Tests. Our fast bowling would be led by Suranga Lakmal, he who averages nearly 50 after thirty tests. No one knows who his bowling partners will be. Yes, I know what we will do – we will let Lakmal take the shine off the new ball with either Mathews or Gunaratne and then let Herath and Dilruwan Perera bowl South Africa out. The selectors must be having a laugh.

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