England have two Test matches in the sweltering humidity of Sri Lanka to reassert their claim as the world’s No.1 Test side. It will not be easy.
Sri Lanka, despite the bickering and lack of cohesion that not being paid properly for 12 months creates, are a formidable outfit at home and have the excellent Mahela Jayawardene back as captain. They also have good momentum from their efforts in the recent one-day triangular series in Australia and the advantage that the first match is played in Galle. England have never won in Galle and with good reason. The pitch is tailor-made for spin bowlers. If the England batters thought the nightmare in January of Pakistan’s Saeed Ajmal and Abdur Rehman teasing them with tweakers and mystery balls was over, they now have to contend with Rangana Herath and at least one other twirler.
At least most of the England batsmen have found some form in the two warm-up matches. Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott have all scored centuries and Kevin Pietersen, fresh from some wonderful batting against Pakistan in the one-day matches in February, looks imperious at the crease. Gone is the tentative prod with the bat coming down at an angle from slip to mid-on and back is the confident front-foot placement and straight bat. He is yet to score a Test hundred in Sri Lanka and one or two in the next few weeks will help England’s cause greatly. There are problems though and they involve Ian Bell, who is enduring a horror winter. He is yet to look secure at the crease and clearly struggles picking the spin. The number six spot is also open after Eoin Morgan was dropped and it is time Ravi Bopara was given a decent opportunity. It should work for him as he is an excellent player of the turning ball.
The bowlers should be fine, exactly as they have been for two years. The heat will sap their energy and the ball will go soft quickly but the seamer group are as disciplined and united a bunch of bowlers as England have had for decades. Whichever two of Stuart Broad, James Anderson, Tim Bresnan and Steven Finn will be the workhorses, will need to take early wickets when the pitch is freshest and the ball new. After them it will be a duel between the spinners. Monty Panesar has continued his resurgence from the UAE in January and is a wonderful foil for Graeme Swann. They will need to be resilient as the Sri Lankan top order will attack them. Jayawardene has hands that a sculptor would envy and his placement of the ball could drive both spinners and Strauss to distraction. Patience will be key and that is probably the message to both the batsmen and bowlers.
Sri Lanka in March has a debilitating and exhausting climate. The batsmen need to bat time in the heat which will a test of endurance and concentration. The seam bowlers will have to get used to short spells in which discipline and aggression must be allied immediately. The spinners will need to bowl long spells and prevent the batsmen breaking free. Test cricket is meant to be a test of courage, attitude, technique and determination. There will be little need for courage as bouncers will be scarce and the pitches low and slow, but that does not detract from the thorough examination the England team will be exposed to. Cricket in Sri Lanka is not a blunderbuss but a display of surgical precision.