England's final shot at redeeming an eminently forgettable winter starts tomorrow. The team that could hardly put a foot wrong for almost two years have spent the best part of three months barely putting one right, as if tumbling over in a three-legged race.
Their inability to deal authoritatively with spin has led to four consecutive Test defeats, putting at risk their hard-earned status as the world's No 1 team. A last-ditch victory at the P Sara Stadium in the Second Test against Sri Lanka would hardly salvage everything, but a fifth consecutive Test defeat for the first time in five years would provoke fevered speculation about the future of this team.
In its way, this sequence of disaster has been more shocking and surprising than the whitewash that engulfed the team led by Andrew Flintoff in Australia in 2006-07. England then knew they were playing against a world-class team coming to the end of its days and bent on vengeance.
But this time England, led by Andrew Strauss, were the world-class outfit, unbeaten in nine series going back three years, playing against two weaker and less-organised opponents in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. As it has turned out, England have won almost none of the key moments this winter.
The pitch at the PSS, said to be the best in the country, may encourage both seam and spin and will almost certainly not permit a high-scoring draw. The past six Tests there have produced positive results, five of them in favour of Sri Lanka.
England's bowlers, who have dismissed the opposition twice in three of the four Tests of the winter, could put them in with a chance once more and a big hundred from some quarter would silence most of the speculation. A 4-1 win-loss ratio on the balance sheet for the winter would still be a pretty lousy return but going out on a high should never be underestimated.
But suppose England do make all the mistakes of the previous three months, what then? If the inquest into the winter losses determines that Strauss (and perhaps the bulk of his team) remain England's best hope, banalities will not do. Geoff Miller, the chairman of selectors, and Hugh Morris, the England managing director, should then explain lucidly and forensically why they think Strauss is still the best man to do the job. Incidentally, the dressing room still adores him.