South Africa's batsmen had a rough time in the Tests, but when it comes to ODIs, there are few places better to be right now than Sri Lanka. That is what batting coach Dale Benkenstein is hoping anyway, and his thinking is this: with several top teams fielding wristspinners in their ODI attacks right now, South Africa's batsmen need to be primed against high-quality spin ahead of next year's World Cup. With the hosts likely to stack their attack with spin options, and with tracks on the island likely to take some turn, this is as good a place as any, for South Africa to hone their skills ahead of the World Cup.
"It's huge value for us to be here - we're not in the subcontinent again for a while," Benkenstein said. "Even though we've had a poor Test series, there's been a lot of work done on spin for a lot of batters. There's been a lot of learning going on. We're seeing this as a great opportunity to just get better. Not only the guys who are playing, but some of the young guys who are with us now. We tell them to use these conditions. Use the nets. Ask people around you. Try and get as much out of it as you can, other than just in the matches that are going on."
Among the skills Benkenstein is trying to teach his charges is to pick spinners out of the hand. South Africa had struggled substantially against wristspin in their 5-1 home series defeat against India earlier in the year, when Yuzvendra Chahal and Kuldeep Yadav took 33 wickets between them. Sri Lanka's ODI spinners have been nowhere near as prolific as India's wristpsinners, but they do pose unorthodox challenges as well. Akila Dananjaya is ostensibly an offspinner, but also delivers an accurate legbreak and a good googly. South Africa may also have to contend with left-arm wristspinner Lakshan Sandakan through the course of the series.
"Picking the bowlers is massive," Benkenstein said. "It's something that's fairly hard to coach. You've got to have a lot of experience. Now we are lucky - we've got some technology that you can go and watch bowlers, and try and pick up anything that can help you out. But ultimately, the guys have got to go out there and work it out for themselves.
"One of the big things is trying to take out one form of dismissal. If you're not sure which way the ball's going, it's always better to be covering your own stumps until you start to find that you're picking him. Often with wristspinners, once you get one wicket, they get two or three. It's just trying to prevent that. The senior guys have got no problem - they've been there before. It's really for the younger guys who are trying to understand that you can't actually face a ball that's spinning both ways until you can actually read it. It's really those first 10 balls - to make sure they've got a gameplan to cover one way. With spinners, if you face them longer, you start to pick up the changes the bowler has."
South Africa's first spin challenge of the series is likely to be posed by Dananjaya, who took seven wickets in the SSC Test. Although he is unorthodox, South Africa's top order can be confident of picking him, said Benkenstein. But just picking him doesn't mean they will automatically play him well.
"One of the impressive things is that Dananjaya is very consistent. Even though he bowls three different styles, he does tend to land the ball in the right place. He's not a massive spinner of the ball. But I think it's just his consistency that you have to be aware of. So I think it's just [about] getting yourself in. Once you've got in, then I think it's a lot easier. It's just really [about] being calm and not panicking when you're finding it a bit tough. That's probably the key to our success."