Staff Writer Seb Brooks previews the upcoming Test series between England and Sri Lanka, with the hosts coming off the back of a heavy defeat in South Africa.
England finally return to the Test arena, as they travel to Sri Lanka for a two-Test series later this month. They will look to carry on the good form that they showed in the home summer, where they bounced back from losing the first Test against the West Indies to take that series 2-1. They also defeated Pakistan, an arguably greater challenge than the Windies, winning a thriller in the opening game, and the 1-0 series result probably does not tell the full story, as in the last Test they racked up 583/8d and looked on course for the win had the Southampton rain held. Zak Crawley, a relatively new addition to this Test side, was magnificent in that game, with a knock of 267 from 393 balls. Combined with a new stable opener in Dom Sibley, this England team appears to be developing nicely. Sibley has shown great temperament in his Test career up until now, batting for long periods of time and seeing off the new ball, most notably in his knock of 120 from 372 balls in the Second Test against the West Indies at Old Trafford.
The top order has often been the issue in the Test team for the last few years and so this has been a major boost. The middle order is stacked with talent, but it just comes down to whether they can find form at the right time. Captain Joe Root averages 47.99 with the bat, and despite a somewhat disappointing summer, performed well in England’s only warm-up game with an unbeaten 74. Added to this, Ollie Pope, whom many draw comparisons with to Ian Bell, made an unbeaten knock of 58. Although Ben Stokes has been rested for this series, England also then have firepower in Jos Buttler, who showed glimpses in his partnership with Crawley in the last test against Pakistan that he has finally found some top form in the Test format with 152 in a total stand of 359. More interestingly, however, Jonny Bairstow has been recalled for this series. Bairstow has been a staple for England in the shorter formats, most often opening the batting well with Jason Roy. Yet, he has recently struggled to find consistency in the longest format of the game. He will hope this can change against Sri Lanka, and it will be interesting to see how he copes, although he will have positive memories of playing here given that he got a hundred in the last Test in November 2018 at Colombo SSC.
In the bowling department, you would expect England to go with at least two spinners in sub-continent conditions. In the squad they have selected three primary ones in Moeen Ali, Dom Bess, and Jack Leach. They could go with all three potentially, but then Moeen may have to be squeezed up the batting order for this to happen. This could be difficult, given that he last played a Test eighteen months ago. Also, although seamers are not as strong in Asia, England still boast a variety of exciting options, despite the resting of Jofra Archer: Anderson, Broad, Curran, Stone, Woakes and Wood. They may only have room for two at a time, however, so it is likely that some will have to miss out. Of all these options, Sam Curran is the one that stands out in being a left-armer and also boasts solid credentials with the bat. Rotation is likely in any case though, given that Anderson and Broad regularly exchange their places in the side, with both now being late on in their respective careers. England also had great success on the last tour of Sri Lanka in 2018 with the spinning trio of Ali, Rashid and Leach, helping to take all 60 wickets in the three matches. Although Rashid is out of the squad this time, it is still therefore reasonable to expect England to potentially play a third spinner like Bess given that it worked well last time.
With regards to Sri Lanka, although they were recently thrashed by South Africa, losing back-to-back Tests firstly by an innings and 45 runs and then by 10 wickets, they are a different animal in home conditions. Captain Dimuth Karunaratne is a solid opening batsman, along with Angelo Mathews in the middle order who has now scored nearly 6,000 Test runs at an impressive average of 45.31. They also boast a number of spinning options, great for what is likely to be turning pitches in Galle: Lasith Embuldeniya, Wanindu Hasaranga, Dilruwan Perera, and Lakshan Sandakan. In any case, expect this attack, and the team in general, to be a lot stronger than they were in South Africa. For their last Test at Galle they comfortably defeated a strong New Zealand side by six wickets in August 2019. New Zealand recently rose to the top of the world Test rankings, highlighting just how good a Test team they are, but Sri Lanka comfortably chased down 268 in the fourth innings. England thus have to be aware of the threat they pose at home, despite completing an away whitewash of 3-0 last time out.
Overall, this promises to be an interesting contest. You would be optimistic in predicting another England clean sweep, but in my view, they go into it as slight favourites. Despite having home advantage, Sri Lanka are inconsistent in the Test game. England look to be finding some form, and if the top order can hold strong, and the spinners have success, then it could be tough going for the hosts. England also have great incentive to do well in this series. Whilst Sri Lanka are all but out of the ICC World Test Championship, England still have a chance of reaching the final. Captain Joe Root recently said that the team would have to ‘play out of its skin’ to do this, however. A convincing series win here would be of massive help, given that the only other opportunity to collect points is on the upcoming tour of India, an even more daunting task. With that said, Sri Lanka will still want to do well and get revenge for the whitewash last time, and this means that there is all to play for in this series.