Cape Town – To say that they will be entering a minefield
might be overstating things, but South Africa may also find when they play both
their ICC World Twenty20 group matches at Hambantota that the place hardly
feels like a welcoming, second home.
The mildly tongue-twisting Mahinda Rajapaksa International
Cricket Stadium is a newish kid on the block as far as top-flight activity is
concerned, the 35 000-capacity ground only having been inaugurated in 2009.
It is not especially promisingly described by Cricinfo as
being located “in a sparsely-populated area a long journey from what remains a
largely imaginary port city of the future”.
Elsewhere on the Web, you find Hambantota, in Sri Lanka’s
Southern Province, considered to have “an intensely hot, arid-zone climate” and
it is apparently also renowned for stiff winds – though this may not be a
phenomenon too alien to Proteas players who hail from, say, Cape Town or Port
Elizabeth and are used to occasional howling gales at their backs or in their
South Africa, widely tipped to be at least semi-final
material by various bookies (albeit in a tournament also acknowledged as wide
open) will have to adapt to the venue pretty quickly, as they tackle both Group
C rivals Zimbabwe (16:00 SA time, Thursday) and the host-nation ‘Lankans (12:00
SA time, Saturday) there.
They are also slightly disadvantaged by both opponents
playing each other there first up, so carrying some pitch intelligence from the
tournament opener (Tuesday, 16:00) into the respective games against the Proteas.
Records from Hambantota suggest that the fledgling ground is
not exactly a batting paradise, which may only add to the lotto-like feeling
you get in Twenty20 cricket at the best of times.
It has only previously featured two T20 internationals, both
between Sri Lanka and Pakistan in early June.
That mini-series was shared 1-1, a common denominator being
relatively low scores by the side taking first strike (Sri Lanka 132 for seven
and two days later Pakistan 122 for six), and the follow-up innings each time
being an ominous, double-figure 95 and 99 all out respectively.
So it suggests that smart, slightly patient cricket may be a
key requirement, rather than an outright “go ballistic” sort of approach often
associated with flat but truer decks in certain other parts of the
Hambantota has also not yet been a prolific host of ODIs,
either, with only six to its credit thus far and again South Africa not
featuring among them.
The last supposedly 50-overs international was on July 24,
when India came a hopeless cropper, being bowled out for 138 in the 34th
over with Gautam Gambhir (65) responsible for roughly half of their runs and
later succumbing by nine wickets.
So the group-phase environment ought to be a further test of
the Proteas’ renewed mental strength evident across the three codes since the
ultra-calm Gary Kirsten – when last did you see him scream animatedly into a
walkie-talkie, a la Heyneke Meyer? – took the coaching reins.
There is a case for saying South Africa ought to enter the
event in prime, general cricketing nick, given their success for the most part
in a full English tour immediately preceding it.
But a cautionary note, arguably, is that it is a pity
certain Proteas stalwarts – the regularly cross-code ones like AB de Villiers,
Hashim Amla, Jacques Kallis, JP Duminy, Morne Morkel and Dale Steyn – were not
able to have even a refreshing week back home to unclutter their minds just a
Flying straight from a lengthy tour of England, with its
glorious early peak of that stirring Test-series victory, to the unforgiving
stickiness of Sri Lanka for this relatively quick-fire but intense jamboree is
something to challenge the toughest of souls.
Anyone know if Mike Horn, that adventurer-cum-motivator with
the apparently bone-crusher handshake, is popping into the camp for a few days?
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