England’s Test team will begin a brave new era without ever-present opener Alastair Cook when they tour Sri Lanka from November 6-27. The former captain has just retired after a record-breaking 12-year England career and that has left a massive hole in the line-up. National selector Ed Smith has furnished captain Joe Root with a number of options, calling up newcomers Rory Burns and Joe Denly and offering Keaton Jennings an international lifeline. They will need to adapt quickly to hostile conditions in Sri Lanka and it should prove to be a close and gripping three-Test series.
The English ODI team have ripped Sri Lanka apart this month, cementing their status as world number one with some devastating performances. But England’s red ball cricket is not in quite such an envious position. On home soil, Root’s men have been pretty strong, winning 14 of their last 22 matches. But on the road they have been positively abysmal, losing 10 and drawing two of their last 12 matches. They have not won away from home since they faced Bangladesh in October 2016.
They last played Sri Lanka back in 2016, securing a 2-0 victory in a three-Test series held at Leeds, Chester-le-Street and Lord’s. Two years previously Sri Lanka picked up a first ever win in England, a result that pushed Cook close to resignation as captain and left James Anderson in tears. England have not toured Sri Lanka since 2011-12, a drawn two-Test series in which they were rescued by one of the finest innings of Kevin Pietersen’s career. Only Anderson and Stuart Broad have any experience of touring the country, which is currently in the middle of the rainy season.
Back then England were the world’s top-ranked Test team, while Sri Lanka were down in fourth. Both teams have since slipped: England are now third, behind India and South Africa, while Sri Lanka are now sixth, and that is largely a result of both teams’ home form. Home advantage is massive in Sri Lanka, where Chandimal Hathurusingha will be preparing for turning pitches. It allowed them to destroy an excellent South African team earlier this year, and it will give them a big advantage in this series. There is plenty of danger lurking in Sri Lanka’s ranks: Dimuth Karunaratne, Kusal Mendis, Angelo Mathews, Dhananjaya de Silva, Dinesh Chandimal and Kaushal Silva all have the quality with the bat to hurt the tourists, and the conditions will be challenging. Rain has disrupted the ODI series, and fans will hope it clears up before the five-day matches begin, but the conditions will remain tricky either way.
A glance at the latest markets tells you that there is little to choose between these sides in the betting. England have never won a game in Galle, where the first Test will be played, and they have only ever won one bilateral Test series in Sri Lanka, so history is very much against them. Throw in their dreadful away record and England are facing an uphill struggle. They must quickly improve if they are to match the feats of their marauding, all-conquering ODI counterparts. Burns has been sensational in county cricket, while Kent vice-captain Denly is also preparing to open and Jennings would relish an opportunity to seize international salvation.
Root knows he has to do something drastic to reverse their abysmal run on their travels. Conditions should be spin friendly, and the Sri Lankans deployed two spinners with the new ball in that series against South Africa, so Root may deploy either Adil Rashid or Jack Leach to open the bowling. “It [opening] doesn’t happen very often for English spin bowlers, but it’s for the guys to start thinking about that now,” said Root. “They should be aware that bowling with the new ball might be a serious option for me and they are going to have to be ready for it. I’d like to think the guys are thinking ahead like that and are clever enough to do it. Learning from that South Africa series is going to be important for me and seeing how they operate. It is about being absolutely ready. The temptation is to beat them at their own game but we have to be a bit smarter than that. It will be difficult to find that balance. We are clear on how we do that and if we do I am confident we can win that series.”
Root’s confidence is admirable, but the betting public has mainly backed Sri Lanka to pick up a home win in the first Test. Conditions will suit them, and they should enjoy a psychological advantage over a nervous England team, but if Root’s men battle to victory it could herald the start of an exciting new dawn for the team.
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