Sri Lanka will be a strong contender at home irrespective of whether Ajantha Mendis is deemed fit to play. © Getty Images

On a bright Wednesday afternoon, New Zealand’s batsmen spent a long time hitting the ball far at the Asgiriya International Cricket Stadium in Kandy. Both Sri Lanka and New Zealand practiced at Asgiriya, though Thursday’s match is at Pallekele, and New Zealand didn’t seem worse for it.

Martin Guptill and Brendon McCullum, in particular, seemed to enjoy themselves, taking plenty of throw-downs with the sole aim of hitting sixes, once they were done with their proper net session. The Old Trinitians Sports Club at one end of the ground and the main pavilion at the other were largely safe as McCullum and Guptill launched their drives straight back over the bowlers’ heads.

New Zealand were upbeat ahead of their match, no doubt buoyed by the fact that the pitch at Pallekele has played true so far. The pitch has been hard and bereft of any live grass, a batting beauty with the ball coming on nicely. Spinners have put all the revs they could on the ball, but it simply has not gripped the surface.

Even with the conditions specific to this game being a cause for optimism, some of the older hands in the New Zealand team will be a touch guarded, for they’ve suffered at Sri Lanka’s hands more than once. In the last two 50-over World Cups, Sri Lanka have lorded it over New Zealand in big matches.

In 2007, at the Sabina Park in Kingston, Jamaica, Sri Lanka batted first and romped to 289 on the back of a fine Mahela Jayawardene century. The spin of Muttiah Muralitharan, Tillakaratne Dilshan and Sanath Jayasuriya then cut a swathe through New Zealand’s batsmen, accounting for eight of them, as an 81-run win booked Sri Lanka a place in the final.

The semifinal effort of 2007 was reprised at the R Premadasa Stadium in Colombo in 2011, this time with New Zealand winning the toss and choosing to bat. A half-century from Scott Styris ensured that New Zealand put something on the board, but once again the Sri Lankan spinners ran amok, picking up seven of the ten wickets to fall. The pursuit of 218 was made simple by a 120-run partnership between Dilshan and Kumar Sangakkara.

While it appears that Thursday’s game against New Zealand is hardly a big match for Sri Lanka, there is plenty riding on it. After all, on paper at least, New Zealand are the least likely to rock Sri Lanka’s boat in Group 1. England’s bowlers will be a handful if there’s any bounce to work with, and the last team in the group, West Indies, have the kind of power-packed unit that make them a strong contender at all times.

Sri Lanka’s challenge will be to keep their nerves in check. After all, they are expected to win every time they take to the park at home. If they can shut out all the distractions, and the added pressure of playing at home, they will be a strong opponent, irrespective of whether Ajantha Mendis is ruled fit to play or not.

In that sense, the International Cricket Council might have unintentionally done the home team a favour by scheduling their league and Super Eights matches outside of Colombo. After all, any distraction the players might have, any extraneous influences, would have been that much more in the capital. All Sri Lanka need to do is take a deep breath, and play to something approaching potential. New Zealand, of course, will be doing their best to make sure this does not happen.