When a prime performer is not able to play...

CAN the absence of one bowler leave an attack demoralised and ineffective? Can Australia lose direction if Glenn McGrath pulls out of a series? Can Pakistan think of winning if Wasim Akram opts out? Possibly, these two countries can survive even if their top-rank bowler misses out, but not Sri Lanka. Without Muttiah Muralitharan the bowling looks average and the team loses its competitive zeal. The 4-1 defeat at the hands of South Africa confirmed the Sri Lankan fears that without Murali their campaign does not take off regardless of the opposition.

South Africa's Jacques Kallis was named the `Player of the Series' for his fine showing with both the bat and the ball.

The South Africans are a formidable lot and very difficult to conquer when playing at home. It was always going to be tough for Sri Lanka to pull off a series win, but then the problems multiplied when the seniors in the team failed to perform.

South Africa was treating the series as a curtain-raiser on many fronts on and off the field. The process to identify the players for the World Cup had been initiated in right earnest and the administration too geared itself up to prepare for the grand event next year.

Sri Lanka's Pulasthi Gunaratne shows his delight after bowling South African batsman Herschelle Gibbs for 16 runs in their second one-day cricket match at SuperSport Park, Centurion, Pretoria. Gibbs, however, made amends in the fourth one-dayer with a sparkling, unbeaten 108.

The first game at the New Wanderers Stadium in Johannesburg was treated as a dummy stage with enhanced security measures in keeping with the requirement at the World Cup. The exercise was a success and the administrators could pat themselves for a job well done but there was widespread criticism with regard to the playing surface which had a big impact on the quality of contest.

It was the first match of the series and the teams were confronted by a hostile pitch where the pace and bounce were too hot for a limited overs game. The curator had a valid excuse for not being able to offer a sporting track but then it hardly helped the cause of the Sri Lankans who were shot out for a paltry 128. On a similar pitch, they had been routed in a Test match at the same venue. Obviously, no lessons had been learnt but then the Sri Lankans could comfort themselves that it was not a pitch suited for a limited overs contest.

South African skipper Shaun Pollock appeals successfully for an lbw decision against Sri Lankan batsman Jehan Mubarak in their first one-day International cricket match in Johannesburg. Pollock picked up four wickets in the match.

Still, the blame lay with the Sri Lankans and not the pitch entirely. The top half was sliced off by Makhaya Ntini and Shaun Pollock and the visiting team never recovered from that debacle. Mahela Jayawardene offered token resistance in the middle order but could not prevent South Africa from romping home with ease.

Not just the absence of Murali but the poor form of Sanath Jayasuriya and Aravinda de Silva also proved a hindrance for Sri Lanka. Jayasuriya was dismal by his standards as he managed a sequence of 7, 46, 22, 27 and 2. It was a let down by the explosive opener who never got going. Aravinda too suffered from inconsistency as he managed scores of 12, 8, 71, 0 and 0. Again, it put too much pressure on the young shoulders of Kumara Sangakkara and Jayawardene. Both failed to deliver and with that sunk Sri Lanka's chances of matching South Africa.

Jayawardene managed just 92 runs in five innings while Sangakkara, who cracked an unbeaten 77 in the last match, aggregated 105 runs.

South Africa's Graeme Smith made a punishing 99 in the second one-dayer. He was unfortunate to miss a century.

Marvan Atapattu was the lone batsman to save his reputation. After disappointing knocks of 1 and 6 he played the major role in Sri Lanka's lone win in the series at Benoni with a sterling effort of 123 not out. It was the brightest spot for Sri Lanka but it failed to motivate the team as it just caved in meekly in the last two matches even though Atapattu continued to contribute with the bat. It was a failure on all fronts for Sri Lanka _ batting, bowling and shockingly sloppy fielding.

South Africa had clearly planned the conquest. It had the fielding to back the bowlers and the fact that Pollock led by example meant the Sri Lankans had a challenge at every stage of the series. The pace bowlers served South Africa wonderfully and as Pollock described at the end of the series the effort had come from all quarters. South Africa had many heroes. Jacques Kallis dominated the series with an all-round performance even as the team prospered through big stage performers in Graeme Smith, Herschelle Gibbs, Boeta Dippenaar, Pollock and Neil McKenzie. The encouraging spells by Ntini must have brought cheers to the South African dressing room.

A pleasing discovery for South Africa came in the shape of quick bowler Monde Zondeki, who picked a wicket in the last match of the series with his first ball in a one-day international. And his prize victim was Atapattu, the best Sri Lankan batsman of the series.

South Africa began on a rousing note when it rocked the Sri Lankans in the opener at Johannesburg and then continued the good work at the SuperSport Park at Centurion. A huge target did not dampen the Sri Lankans who made a grand start through Jayasuriya but then three wickets in the span of 13 balls took the fight out of the visiting team.

Sri Lankan batsman Marvan Atapattu in action during his century-knock in the third one-dayer.

The seeds of a fightback had been sown in that brief innings by Jayasuriya and it was left to Atapattu to produce a superb innings that crafted Sri Lanka's lone win in the next match at Benoni. Atapattu was aided by veteran Aravinda. The euphoria, however, was shortlived as South Africa hit back strongly at Kimberly, winning the battle comprehensively by eight wickets, the task made easy by fiery spells earlier by Allan Donald and Pollock with Kallis too chipping in with two key wickets.

It was a disappointing series by all standards and one that left Sri Lanka worried. It had failed on all fronts even as South Africa patted itself for a professional show. It had been the better team all through and the 4-1 series win was the culmination of a concerted effort with every member playing his role to perfection. It was the right kind of preparation for the World Cup with the players and the administrators emerging with a near flawless display.

The scores:

1st ODI: Sri Lanka 128 in 46.4 overs (Jayawardene 31, Pollock four for 18, Ntini three for 22) lost to South Africa 129 for four in 29.3 overs (Boucher 45 not out, Kallis 38 not out).

2nd ODI: South Africa 317 for six in 50 overs (Smith 99, Dippenaar 89, Kallis 53) beat Sri Lanka 140 in 33.2 overs (Jayasuriya 46, Jayawardene 32, Ntini three for 38).

3rd ODI: South Africa 253 for seven in 50 overs (Kallis 87, Klusener 60 not out, Pollock 39) lost to Sri Lanka 258 for three in 41.4 overs (Atapattu 123 not out, De Silva 71).

4th ODI: Sri Lanka 184 in 47.3 overs (Arnold 50, Atapattu 39, Pollock three for 40) lost to South Africa 190 for two in 30.5 overs (Gibbs 108 not out, Kallis 64 not out).

5th ODI: Sri Lanka 228 for eight in 50 overs (Sangakkara 77, Atapattu 53, Arnold 36, Samaraweera 33) lost to South Africa 229 for four in 45.1 overs (McKenzie 70 not out, Gibbs 47, Dippenaar 36).

JACQUES KALLIS smiling is a rare sight. He is just like David Boon. Fiercely competitive, unrelenting. The right mix to be a matchwinner. The right mix to be ranked among the top players of the world.

An all-rounder of substance, Kallis has been an asset to the South African team with his matchwinning skills. His consistency is the highpoint of his character and Kallis in form can be the most comforting thought for a skipper.

For long Kallis has dominated the opposing teams with his all-round craft. He likes to be involved at every stage of the match and that explains his desire to take up a challenge when others would not. He is adept at breaking partnerships and revels in scoring when the team needs the runs. He bats well when conditions favour the bowlers and this quality stems from his desire to match the best to emerge the best. His strong self-belief has established him as one of the premier cricketers in the world and certainly a top-class all-rounder. He is not the bits and pieces type because he possesses the quality to shine in all conditions.

The `Man of the Series' honours against Sri Lanka was expected for Kallis because he was only doing what was expected of him. He began sedately with an unbeaten 38 in the opener and then warmed up with a 53 and one for 16 in the second match, enough to fetch him the `Man of the Match' award.

The third one-dayer saw Kallis make 83 but South Africa ended up a loser before he dominated the opposition in the fourth match with a spell of two for 25 and an unbeaten 64 which sealed the series in favour of the home team. Having done his job, Kallis could afford to sit out the last match and watch his team finish off the opposition with ease.

The presence of Kallis lends South Africa that extra bit of strength in its preparation for the World Cup. When the big event arrives, Kallis will be one of the key men to watch with his all-round abilities.