South Africa's fast bowlers will aim to make things awkward for Sri Lanka's batsmen by hitting the bat higher than the visitors are used to, Dale Steyn, South Africa's spearhead, has said. Steyn said he hoped to exploit the South African pitches, known for their pace and bounce, as much as possible against a side who have not toured the country for nine years.
"In the subcontinent, where these guys grow up, the ball hits the bat from the stickers down," Steyn said. "We want to hit the bat on areas that are unfamiliar for them and make them feel uncomfortable, like maybe a little higher up."
With the threat of balls buzzing around their ears or having to be fended off at chest height, Sri Lanka would have liked to get more batting time during their warm-up match against the South African Invitation XI from December 9-11. The first day was washed out after downpours in Benoni and the Invitation XI opted to bat on the second, leaving the Sri Lankans with less than two sessions of batting time on the third day. Openers Tillakaratne Dilshan and Tharanga Paranavitana both enjoyed fruitful innings but the rest of the line-up are without significant game time on South African pitches.
"It was pretty unfortunate that we couldn't get a full day of batting," Angelo Matthews, the Sri Lanka allrounder, said. "But we are very pleased that the top order is in form. [The rest of us] need to adapt to the conditions very quickly if we are to perform well. The main thing we need to do is adjust to the bounce and the pace."
Kumar Sangakkara, who is expected to recover from a torn webbing in his right hand in time for the first Test, said Sri Lanka are up for the challenge of facing South Africa's pace attack, which has been touted as one of the team's finest ever ones. Steyn and Morne Morkel have been joined by Vernon Philander, who took 14 wickets in his debut series against Australia last month. Philander maintains a nagging line with the new ball and attacks in a different way to Steyn, who relies on swing. Steyn said the contrast between Philander's and his styles had worked for South Africa so far. "Vernon is the kind of bowler who is fantastic to share the new ball with. We call him Vern McGrath now because he just nibbles it around all the time."
Using Philander to open the bowling is a change from the usual Steyn and Morkel pairing, but it is a move that Steyn said gives South Africa an added advantage. "The next guy to step up is Morne Morkel who bowls thunderbolts from 10 foot up. And then we have Jacques Kallis who has shown in domestic matches this year that he can still rev it up to 140. It's nice to have guys who follow up the new ball with pace."
Legspinner Imran Tahir is expected to complete the line-up although Hashim Amla said "there would be a temptation" to go into the first Test in Centurion with an all-pace attack. That would mean either handing a debut to 21-year-old fast bowler Marchant de Lange, who has played just 14 first-class matches, or playing an extra batsman.
Whatever combination South Africa choose, they will go into the match with an attack that is significantly more dynamic than the one they had when they last played against Sri Lanka, in 2006. Then, South Africa's bowlers were made to toil as Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene put on a record partnership of 624 in Colombo. Steyn shuddered when asked what he remembered about that tour and said he is certain there will not be a repeat. "I have moved on with my life, I don't really want to talk about that. But what I can say is that it's going to be a lot harder to score world-record partnerships in South Africa."