Sri Lanka will try to scratch a seven-year itch in the third ODI against South Africa at the R. Premadasa Stadium in Colombo on Tuesday. The visitors will hope to go to the happy place they’ve been to five times during those seven years.
You have to rewind to August 2014 to find the last series in the format that Sri Lanka clinched by winning a deciding last match. That’s more than seven years ago, and since then they’ve won only six of their 26 ODI rubbers all told. Most of their losses in that time have been comprehensive or something like it: only against Zimbabwe in June and July 2017 and against India in December that year did the rubber go down to the wire, and of course the Lankans lost both times.
The month before Sri Lanka’s 2014 success over Pakistan, South Africa earned a 2-1 win on the Asian island having taken a 1-1 scoreline into the third match, in Hambantota – the first of five ODI rubbers they have won from then by prevailing in a decider. Among them is a home series against England in February 2016, when South Africa lost the first two games before reeling off a hat-trick of victories. After that trip to Sri Lanka in 2014, they have won 17 of their 23 rubbers, and lost just twice when the issue has been in the balance in the last match – against Bangladesh in July 2015 and Pakistan in April this year.
And here we are, on the cusp of another decider. Avishka Fernando’s 118 powered the Lankans to victory on Thursday. On Saturday Janneman Malan’s 121 and Tabraiz Shamsi’s 5/49 helped the South Africans level matters. If momentum really is a thing in sport – and we could talk about that for too long without reaching a conclusion – it has to be with the visitors.
Not only did they win with the series on the line, but they also did so without their captain, Temba Bavuma, who had his thumb broken by a throw from the field at a crucial stage of the first match. Also, they have lived to fight on Tuesday despite the absence from their ranks of Quinton de Kock, David Miller, and Lungi Ngidi.
Sri Lanka will want to find a way to put more pressure on South Africa’s batters, particularly in the graveyard shift in the middle of the innings. From overs 10 to 40 they have claimed only four wickets in the two matches. The visitors have struck 10 times during those overs.
The home side will also want more stability at the crease, having been reduced to 61/4 inside 15 overs on Saturday. Bhanuka Rajapaksa looks likely to be made a scapegoat for this problem, having faced six balls and scored no runs in the series. Take your pick between Dinesh Chandimal and Kamindu Mendis to fill the vacancy. Chandimal, a stalwart of 149 ODIs, surely has the edge over Mendis, who hasn’t managed to get into double figures in any of his three innings.
Push is about to come to shove in the series. Both teams know what that feels like. One of them, it seems, is more comfortable than the other under that kind of pressure. But the Sri Lankans won’t have forgotten how they won on Thursday. Another day, another game.