There is a fascinating series in prospect between Sri Lanka and England, which starts in Galle on Tuesday.
Both sides are in a state of considerable flux, for rather different reasons. Sri Lanka have been struggling for a number of years to work out what their best side is and even who their best captain is. The great gulf left by the departures of Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene is yet to be filled. Their best player, Angelo Mathews, has chronic fitness problems. Kaushal Silva and Lahiru Thirimanne have struggled to establish themselves in the top order. But in Kusal Mendis they have one of the brightest prospects in world cricket. Dinesh Chandimal and opener Dimuth Karunaratne may well have pivotal roles to play.
Despite their convincing win over India in the summer England still have lots of unanswered questions. The most serious one relates to the top order. Alastair Cook’s retirement leaves Keaton Jennings as the senior opener, with the untested Rory Burns and Joe Denly likely to occupy numbers two and three (unless Moeen Ali stays at three, which will be a big ask if he has to bowl twenty overs a day). As a Test match top order, this seems far from convincing.
Then there is the wicket-keeping. Jonny Bairstow’s ankle injury must make him a doubtful starter for Galle. Jos Buttler seems a ready-made replacement, but everyone seems to agree that Ben Foakes, who is also in the squad, is the best gloveman of the three.
And will room be found for Jack Leach, who seems the steadiest, albeit the least experienced, of England’s three main spinners?
Objectively, and looking at the two squads’ man for man, one would expect England to win this series handsomely. But Sri Lanka are always hard to beat at home. Home advantage is becoming an increasingly serious problem for Test cricket. The ICC has to address the issue of the preparation of wickets. So-called practice matches are becoming a joke. The truth is that the international schedule does not allow time for the traditional Test tour.
Jennings and Burns might turn out to be one of England’s great opening pairs. But one has to wonder how often either of them has opened the batting against two spinners. I watched South Africa play Sri Lanka in Galle earlier this year and that’s what happened then. England’s spinners will have their moments, no doubt. Adil Rashid has a knack of delivering unplayable balls. But will he, Moeen and Leach really be a match for Rangana Herath and Diluran Perera?
The best news for England in the last few weeks has been that Herath will be retiring after the Galle Test. This might give them a whiff of a chance in the series. His has been a tremendous career. How many wickets would he have got if Muttiah Muralitharan had not been around to keep him out of. the side all those years? Galle has always been a favourite hunting ground for this seemingly innocuous trundler. He must be licking his lips.
For England this can perhaps be the series when Joe Root asserts himself as captain and reasserts himself as one of the world’s best batsmen. His predecessor as captain has gone. Old pro’s James Anderson and Stuart Broad are still there but Broad at least must surely be vulnerable. This is becoming Root’s side.
So for both teams, in a relatively high-profile series, as these things go, there is a lot at stake – careers to further, chances to take. Sri Lanka need to show that they are still impregnable at home. For England, it is more complicated. They have world class players- Root, Anderson, Ben Stokes.
But are they that much better a side, away from home, than Australia or South Africa, both of whom were slaughtered by the Sri Lankan spinners on their most recent visits to the beautiful island nation?
We are about to discover.
Title image by calflier001 (GALLE CRICKET GROUND SRI LANKA JAN 2013) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
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