Cricket: Spin is familiar foe for England

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ARJUNA RANATUNGA, who was present when Sri Lanka made their entry into Test cricket, against England 11 years ago, believes the Test match that begins today represents Sri Lanka's best chance of victory over the tourists.

'After watching them on TV from India I wish we had played them first,' the 29-year-old Sri Lankan captain said. 'I could see that after a month or so they had improved the way they were playing the spinners, they were a lot more positive.'

The Test is on the same pitch New Zealand lost on in December and Ranatunga hopes the pair of off-spinners who shaped victory then will be the star turns again. Muttiah Muralitharan and Jayananda Warnaweera took 13 wickets on that occasion despite Martin Crowe's allegation that the latter, who Ranatunga says bowls quicker than the Indian leg-spinner, Anil Kumble, was a 'chucker'.

'It was very unpleasant, he was clearly a potential matchwinner and it might have been a tactical ploy,' Ranatunga said. 'He has bowled in New Zealand, India and Sharjah and never had problems. They are the most important players in our side, both are big turners of the ball especially Muralitharan.' He is only the third Tamil to play for Sri Lanka.

Neither player is very experienced with eight Tests between them but Sri Lanka have only played 42 Test matches in all of which Ranatunga has missed four, one since 1983, at Lord's in 1991. Then he was dropped and lost the captaincy after falling out with the team manager in the preceding drawn series in New Zealand.

'The best moment for me was beating the West Indies in the Nehru Cup in 1989. To beat the best side in the world as captain was special.' The worst said Ranatunga, was against the touring Australians in August.

Sri Lanka, chasing a victory target of 181, collapsed from 127 for 2 to lose by 16 runs, Ranatunga having a nought to his name. At the time Allan Border's belief that the experience would make them a better side was little consolation but now, with a win as captain finally achieved, Ranatunga is inclined to agree.

'It was a very good lesson and helped us beat New Zealand. We have now got the taste of winning and confidence in ourselves. When I began it was totally different, we still played two-day cricket and did not know much about Test cricket.'

The attendance is not expected to be high because it clashes with the annual schools matches which astonishingly attract crowds of more than 20,000. The nearest English equivalent would be the Varsity rugby match.

ENGLAND (from): M A Atherton, R A Smith, M W Gatting, G A Hick, A J Stewart (capt, wkt), N H Fairbrother, C C Lewis, J E Emburey, P W Jarvis, P C R Tufnell, D E Malcolm, D A Reeve.

The England team sponsors, Tetley Bitter, yesterday sought to distance themselves from criticism over the players' attire. Tetley issued a statement making it clear that the England players are not contracted to wear their brand- name clothing all the time while on tour. 'The England players are only expected to wear branded clothing travelling to and from, and at, the ground on practice and match days as well as for pre-arranged interviews, press conferences and photo opportunities,' the statement said.