The rhythmic beating of the drums synchronised with the vibrancy of the practice sessions. Even as the cricketers trained, entertainers in traditional costumes were getting their act together for the opening ceremony.

The ICC Champions Trophy gets underway with the Group ‘B’ contest between host South Africa and versatile Sri Lanka at the SuperSport Park here on Tuesday. The encounter promises to be high on octane.

The tournament arrives at a time when questions are being asked about the future of the 50 overs-a-side format. The competition here could be critical to the survival of ODI cricket in its present form.

In ODI cricket, there is time and space for batsmen to build an innings, for bowlers to send down longer spells with reasonably attacking fields. Here, the sides have a greater chance to regroup and recover.

The flexible Power Plays, the one chosen by the batting side in particular, has made ODI cricket more tactical. Even the much-maligned middle overs, if followed intensely, is a cat-and-mouse phase of subtle strategic byplay.

It is in the middle overs, when its spin duo of Muttiah Muralitharan and Ajantha Mendis bowl in tandem, that Sri Lanka will be seeking to strangulate the powerful South African batting line-up.

Traditionally, the Lankans control the game well in the middle-overs, choking the flow of runs with single-denying fields.

South African skipper Graeme Smith could counter the ploy by asking his batsmen to go after Mendis in a bid to disrupt the young spinner’s rhythm. Smith said here on Monday, “We have seen that teams that have attacked him (Mendis) have done better against him.”

Abraham de Villiers, light in feet and heavy with strokes, could don a key role against the Lankan spin pair.

Amla replaces Gibbs

The South African will also have to contend with the pace and swing of slinger Lasith Malinga. And the host will be without the charismatic Herschelle Gibbs, who is out of the match with a rib-injury. Smith confirmed that the elegant Hashim Amla would take Gibbs’s spot as his opening partner.

There is bound to be some bounce and seam movement for the pacemen during the early stages of the season in these parts. The SuperSport Park is a rather open ground and the breeze blowing across the arena could assist swing.

South Africa, back as No. 1 in the ODIs, would rely on its strong pace attack to rattle the Lankans.

The duel between the speedy Dale Steyn and the innovative Tillekaratne Dilshan in the early stages of the game could prove engrossing. Left-armer Wayne Parnell adds much to the attack as well.

Lankan captain Kumar Sangakkara, technically the most adept while coping with lift and movement could have a critical role against sides with better pace attacks.

Influential cricketers

Both sides are not short of influential cricketers. Sanath Jayasuriya, Mahela Jayawardene, Jacques Kallis and Mark Boucher could swing matches for their side.

And both teams have capable all-rounders; Albie Morkel and Angelo Matthews are dynamic players. Another emerging cricketer, van der Merwe is a capable left-arm spinner who appears to relish the sniff of a combat.

The dew will be a factor while chasing under the lights. Some of the deliveries could skid off the pitch for the pacemen. The spinners could face a problem or two though.

The teams:

South Africa (from): G. Smith (captain), H. Amla, Abraham de Villiers, J. Kallis, J.P. Duminy, A. Morkel, M. Boucher, van der Merwe, J. Botha, D. Steyn, W. Parnell, M. Ntini, R. Petersen, L. Tsotsobe.

Sri Lanka (from): K. Sangakkara (captain), T. Dilshan, S. Jayasuriya, M. Jayawardene, T. Samaraweera, T. Kandamby, A. Matthews, N. Kulasekara, M. Muralitharan, A. Mendis, L. Malinga, T. Tushara, C. Kapugedara, U. Tharanga, D. Prasad.

Match starts at 6 p.m. (IST).

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