Once more unto the breach, dear friends. The final act in England’s winter drama will be played out in front of a mildly apathetic audience in Sri Lanka over the next fortnight. Now, we love Test cricket as much as anyone (save perhaps Chris Gayle), but we’re not sure stand-alone two game series are quite what everyone has in mind. A proper series is one which has a few Tests, a few one day games, and which twist and turn like a… twisty-turny thing. Not only does this tour have none of that, but it’s also going to be competing for (international) media attention with New Zealand’s latest attempt to get rolled for less than 100, Gayle’s return to the international fold, even more reflections on Sachin Tendulkar’s defeat-inducing century against Bangladesh and, of course, the one we’ve all been waiting for; the IPL. Nevertheless, it’s cricket, and England have a very pretty bowling attack.
Sri Lanka haven’t played Test cricket since their thrashing in Cape Town, while their one day performances have lurched from excellent team efforts to heroic defeat, then to absolute maulings and back to heroic defeat again. Their problems are much the same as they have been since Murali’s retirement; the batting looks strong on paper, though susceptible to collapsing in a heap, but they lack any sort of match-winner with the ball. Things may be different on home soil against an England side which tends to react to a turning wicket with the composed confidence of a man drowning in a vat of sulphuric acid, but the feeling is that may be their only hope.
Since their visit to English shores almost a year ago there have been wholesale changes at the top of Sri Lankan cricket. Both captain Tillekeratne Dilshan and coach Geoff Marsh have been replaced by Mahela Jayawardene and Graeme Ford, respectively, and it must be said that they look a more coherent unit for it. Jayawardene is undoubtedly a better leader than Dilshan and his form seems to reflect the fact he is relishing his second stab at the job.
The biggest news coming out of the home side’s camp is the absence of Angelo Mathews, out of the first Test and potentially unable to bowl too much more at international level. Needless to say, this is a pretty big blow to the Sri Lankans, but more so in one day cricket than the longer form of the game. Chamara Silva, who scored a blistering hundred against England this week, has been drafted into the squad but probably won’t play, while it’s a straight shoot-out between Tharanga Paranavitana and Lahiru Thirimanne to open and Prasanna Jayawardene and Dinesh Chandimal to keep wicket. The former may well get the nod in both cases, but it surely won’t be long before Chandimal gets into the side as a specialist batsman anyway.
The Best Team In The WorldTM have found some form of late, what with wiping the floor with Pakistan in the shorter form of the game, and have begun the Sri Lankan leg of their winter by battering a Board XI in Colombo and then scraping past a Development XI despite not bowling them out at all. The first game saw excellent performances from all four bowlers as well as yet another century for Alastair Cook (163*), but it was most notable for the Graeme Swann attempting to do his bit for international relations in saying he ‘wanted to kill’ Dilruwan Perera after he refused to walk for a catch taken in the slips. Given the history of bad blood between these two sides, that was perhaps not the wisest way to kick off their latest visit.
In terms of team selection the decision to be made looks increasingly like a straight choice between Samit Patel and Tim Bresnan. Ravi Bopara was the frontrunner until the Wednesday morning, when it emerged he had picked up a side strain and would be unable to bowl in the first Test. Realistically England are probably going to need a decent number of overs from whoever fills Eoin Morgan’s spot in the side and that may now give Patel the edge. Bresnan’s inclusion would mean a return to a five-man attack, something England have been reluctant to go with in recent years, and the way the two seamers/two spinners line-up worked in the Emirates as well as in the first warm-up game on this tour could well mean that’s the way the tourists will go. If we’re honest, though, we don’t really have a clue. Any sarcastic comments and you will be banned from reading the rest of this preview.
England’s trouble with spin has been well documented, but the Sri Lankan attack is not as threatening as their Pakistani counterparts and the hope is that the top order will have learnt its lessons by now. The most worrying thing is how out of form the majority of them are, though that has been to some extent rectified in the second warm-up game – centuries for Jonathan Trott and Andrew Strauss while all of Bopara, Patel, Kevin Pietersen and Matt Prior passed 50. Ian Bell is the biggest concern, as he now hasn’t made a half-century for 17 innings, but they all probably need a solid innings to start the series off, after which their confidence may come flooding back. If not, the bowlers might have to carry them once again.
The pitch in Galle is notorious as a raging turner – even Nathan Lyon took six wickets on debut there last September – and with that in mind it’ll probably be another low scoring affair. England have two draws and a defeat from their three visits to the International Stadium, but they did once let Sanath Jayasuriya take 8/94 and, on a separate occasion, got bowled out for 81 on this ground, so they should be full of confidence. We don’t rate this Sri Lankan bowling attack very highly at all, so fancy England to sneak home. Unless it rains quite a lot. That’s insight for you.
As usual we’ll be following this series on Twitter (@51AllOut). Free gin for everyone who joins us from the start!*
*Free gin may not be available to all.