One-day cricket is on the line in the next fortnight. The gallows have already been erected – the ICC are probably carrying a sponsored set round in the back of one of the tournament vans just in case – and if the Champions Trophy is a failure both in terms of standards and spectacle the noose will be prepared.
There must be close games, there must be high-scoring games and there must be exciting ones as well. Preferably, the host nation must reach the final, which might be a bonus if all the other requirements are met but is probably a necessary one.
It was against this backdrop that South Africa, favourites and renowned chokers, and Sri Lanka, under-achievers of late in a form of the game in which they should be at their most proficient, contested the opening match last night. Things did not go quite according to plan. Sri Lanka won by 55 runs on Duckworth Lewis when rain curtailed South Africa's innings by 12.2 overs. The match had its moments, most of them provided by Sri Lanka who batted and bowled delightfully, but close and exciting it was not.
By the wet conclusion – and expect more of this – two mysteries were unsolved. One was the bowling of Ajantha Mendis, the Sri Lanka spin bowler who is neither leg spinner nor off spinner but is a great deal in between. He took a wicket with his first ball when he removed South Africa's captain and danger man Graeme Smith who was looking fiercely determined and playing shots to match, and two more besides and remained unreadable throughout his charming spell.
The second was why Smith opted to field first after winning the toss. Runs on the board under lights are worth their weight in gold anywhere let alone in Johannesburg which was built virtually because oodles of the stuff were discovered around the place. It left his team batting second when the dew was forming. Perhaps he was uncertain how the pitch could play at this time of year – spring in South Africa – that he dared not risk it.
But it has left the hosts with work to do and the fear of being eliminated yet again early in a major competition in which they are confidently expected to go the distance will hang over them as the smoke from the brais initially hung over Centurion Park last night. They cannot afford another defeat and this should encourage England who oppose them on Sunday in Group B.
Smith must have feared the worst when Sri Lanka made 319 for eight, his consolation being that this was fewer than it looked it might be in the rip-roaring early stage of their innings. The first century of the tournament was scored by its 30th over by the marvellous Tillakaratne Dilshan, dasher and purveyor of the legendary Dilscoop. It was his second of the year, his third in all, and the innings was beautifully fashioned from 92 balls with a combination of drives and cuts propelled by flexible wrists, allied to outrageous shot-making. Dilshan waited until the seventh over to play his legendary scoop shot whereby he gets down on one knee as if proposing marriage and then lifts the ball over his head. It brings whoops of delight and takes some temerity at any time, let alone when it is against Wayne Parnell who is capable of wanging the ball down at 90mph.
Dilshan and Kumar Sangakkara, who put on 158 for the second wicket in 161 balls, were both dismissed at inopportune moments.
It meant some regrouping and the Sri Lankans had the man to do it in their former captain Mahela Jayawardene. There can hardly be a crisper or better ordered batsman in the world. He and Thilan Samaraweera also shared a century partnership.
To have any chance South Africa had to start well, keep up with the rate and retain wickets. The loss of Hamish Amla early was overcome as Smith biffed his way round the ground where he has been at his most prolific. He scored his fifth 50 at the venue, probably knew he needed his second hundred, but was cut off in his prime.
Mendis, on for the 15th over, outsmarted him with one which did not turn but skidded through the gate and knocked over leg stump. JP Duminy went in similar fashion. It was all bravado thereafter until the rain arrived.
The Centurion pitch is just coming out of winter hibernation and indeed must have been shocked to have been awoken so soon. It has a lot of work ahead. It has to help save an entire form of the game.
Scoreboard: Group B
Centurion Park; South Africa won toss
Sri Lanka Innings
T M Dilshan c J A Morkel b Steyn 106
S T Jayasuriya lbw b Steyn 10
K C Sangakkara c & b Duminy 54
D P M Jayawardene c Duminy b Parnell 77
T T Samaraweera c van der Merwe b Parnell 37
A D Mathews b Steyn 15
S H T Kandamby c Duminy b Parnell 6
K M D Kulasekara run out 1
M Muralitharan not out 0
Extras (lb5 w5 nb3) 13
Total 8 wkts (50 overs) 319
Fall: 1-16 2-174 3-181 4-297 5-297 6-314 7-317 8-319
Did not bat: S L Malinga, B A W Mendis.
Bowling: Steyn 9-2-47-3; Parnell 10-0-79-3; Kallis 7-0-43-0; J A Morkel 4-0-39-0; J Botha 9-0-53-0; Van der Merwe 10-0-42-0; Duminy 1-0-11-1
South Africa Innings
G C Smith b Mendis 58
H M Amla b Mathews 2
J H Kallis c Mathews b Mendis 41
AB de Villiers c J'wardene b Malinga 24
J P Duminy b Mendis 0
M V Boucher lbw b Mathews 26
J A Morkel not out 29
J Botha c Mathews b Malinga 21
R E van der Merwe not out 3
Extras (w2) 2
Total 7 wkts (37.4 overs) 206
Fall: 1-9 2-90 3-113 4-113 5-142 6-163 7-198
Did not bat: D W Steyn, W D Parnell
Bowling: Malinga 7.4-0-43-2; Kulasekara 7-0-44-0; Mathews 8-1-43-2; Muralitharan 8-0-46-0; Mendis 7-0-30-3
Umpires: I J Gould and S J A Taufel
International centuries Tillakaratne Dilshan has hit in 2009 – two in ODIs and four in Tests.