If form in South Asian conditions is difficult to discern ahead of this series, with so little Test cricket having been played here in the past year, Sri Lanka are throwing predictions into further disarray with their wounded and their injury returnees. A day out from the first Test, (there’s still time to get injured), Angelo Mathews and Dinesh Chandimal look likely to be in the top order. But although batsman Oshada Fernando, and fast bowlers Suranga Lakmal and Lahiru Kumara have technically recovered from their injuries, they may not quite be match-ready enough to make the XI.
Sri Lanka also lost both Tests against South Africa by large margins, so in normal circumstances you would expect them to be turning up low on morale. And yet, they don’t seem to be beating themselves up about those losses much. At the end of that series, captain Dimuth Karunaratne was essentially of the view that when you have the appalling volume of injuries Sri Lanka suffered on that tour, losses such as those were bound to happen. It is what it is. Tomorrow is a new day. This – their first at home since August 2019 – is a new series.
England, despite being tourists, have arguably had the better preparation leading up, though. They’ve been in the country for longer (Sri Lanka only arrived on January 8 from South Africa, England had come six days earlier). But in the age of quarantine and bio-bubbles, superior prep only means so much. For three of their days on the island, England’s players couldn’t leave their rooms. When training did begin, they couldn’t play a tour match or two as they normally might, so they tried an intra-squad two-dayer, only for one of those days to be rained out.
But more than that, they are missing some of the players who propelled them to their 3-0 win on their 2018 tour. Ben Stokes is being rested. Adil Rashid wasn’t picked in the squad. Moeen Ali was probably going to play, but contracted Covid-19 and can’t. And despite being Player of the Series in that whitewash, Ben Foakes has been edged out of the wicketkeeper’s spot by Jos Buttler.
So here are two deeply flawed and unpredictable (yes, we say that about England now too) sides, who are being served an extraordinary set of circumstances by this pandemic. England-Sri Lanka series have generally produced outstanding cricket this century (the past two series notwithstanding, perhaps). As there are no clear favourites here, there is no reason this one can’t be a thriller too.
(completed matches, most recent first)
Sri Lanka: : LLDWL
Players to watch
Angelo Mathews played the innings of his life against England (his 160 at Headingley), as well as another hundred and a handful of fifties, so he will almost certainly be the Sri Lanka batsman who commands the most respect among England’s attack. And yet, in the years since that incredible Leeds innings, Mathews has not been a particularly consistent batsman. In three of the past five years, he’s averaged less than 30. Though once he seemed destined to be a 10,000-run batsman, that is no longer a certainty. Much of his inconsistency has stemmed from the injuries that have kept him out for months at a time over the past few years, and he is returning yet again from a hamstring strain. Having trimmed down early last year, Mathews seems motivated to make what may be the last few years of his career productive ones. If he has a good series with the bat (he will not bowl), Sri Lanka will go a distance to winning it.
Jos Buttler only averages 33.93 with the bat, but it is his batting that is keeping Foakes (who by the way averages 41.50 but hasn’t played a Test in almost two years) out of the XI. The theory is that Buttler, such an accomplished limited-overs batsman, and a man who can send a team innings soaring when the mood strikes, will see long-term improvements in his batting output eventually. Late in England’s summer, he provided a hint of the player he could become, hitting 67, 75 and 152 in the space of three innings. While on that form he commands a place in the batting order, it is with the gloves that he perhaps will be tested most in Sri Lanka. The spinners will likely have to bowl the majority of overs in this series. It is unfair to expect him to be as magisterial as Foakes was in 2018, but can he be good?
Pitch and conditions
Generally, Galle pitches are decent for batting on on the first two days, before they switch suddenly – and almost violently – into dustbowls from day three onwards. This time, there are two reasons why the Galle track may stay good for batting longer than normal. First, as the venue is to host both Tests, they can’t afford to start the square off too dry. Secondly, with Sri Lanka having just come back from South Africa, where they played on that nation’s fastest pitches, the hosts are likely to want a more even track than a severe examination by spin.
There’s also a bit of rain around, because even though it’s January (generally one of the driest months in the southwest), these things tend happen when a cricket tour starts. Despite the rain, though, Sri Lanka hasn’t seen a draw on its surfaces since 2014.
Will Sri Lanka play Kusal Mendis, who has collected three ducks in a row in South Africa? He is in a dead heat for the No. 3 spot with Lahiru Thirimanne. Sri Lanka hope Suranga Lakmal can make the XI, but if he doesn’t Vishwa Fernando is likely to play.
Sri Lanka (probable): 1 Dimuth Karunaratne (capt.), 2 Kusal Perera, 3 Kusal Mendis/Lahiru Thirimanne, 4 Dinesh Chandimal, 5 Angelo Mathews, 6 Niroshan Dickwella (wk), 7 Dasun Shanaka, 8 Wanindu Hasaranga, 9 Dilruwan Perera, 10 Lasith Embuldeniya, 10 Suranga Lakmal/Vishwa Fernando
England have some decisions to make on the bowling front. It seems as if they will go in with two frontline quicks, with Mark Wood and one of either James Anderson or Stuart Broad alongside allrounder Sam Curran. Batsman Dan Lawrence looks set for a debut.
England (probable) 1 Dom Sibley, 2 Zak Crawley, 3 Jonny Bairstow, 4 Joe Root (capt.), 5 Dan Lawrence, 6 Jos Buttler 7 Sam Curran, 8 Dom Bess, 9 Jack Leach 10 Mark Wood 11 James Anderson/Stuart Broad
Stats and trivia
- Each of the last 26 Tests in Sri Lanka have had a result. The home side has won 14 of those.
- Buttler’s Sri Lanka record is better than his overall record. He scored 250 runs in the country on that previous tour, at a strike rate of 72. He crossed fifty twice and was never dismissed for less than 16.
- Angelo Mathews needs 19 more to get to 6000 Test runs. He’d be the fifth Sri Lanka batsman to that milestone, after Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene, Sanath Jayasuriya and Aravinda de Silva.
- Even since the start of this century, England have won six matches in Sri Lanka and lost only four.
Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo’s Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf