Cricket: Sri Lanka facing an early test

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ANY ONE-DAY competition that pits the World Cup holders against two of the sides most likely to take the title off them is an exciting prospect. Test matches may be the gold standard, but limited-overs cricket is the only currency guaranteed worldwide and the England and Wales Cricket Board clearly want to cash in on the build-up to next season's World Cup.

Triangular series are not new. In Australia, as a result of the Packer revolution, they have been around for 20 years. Billed with American self- importance as the World Series, the competition has long been milked for all its financial worth and England face a possible 13 matches there during January and February.

Over the years the popularity of the event cannot be denied and, providing Australia have reached the finals, money has rolled in. As a result all but one of the major Test grounds now have floodlights and most matches, except those in Tasmania, are day/night affairs.

The format here, which begins today at Trent Bridge where Sri Lanka play South Africa, is far more compact and is more like a knockout cup. Sponsored by Emirates Airlines, who are putting up pounds 15,000 and a handsome trophy for the winners, each team has only two matches to get to next Thursday's final at Lord's.

Mistakes will therefore prove as costly as losing a vital toss and some luck is bound to have a bearing on the end result.

However, there are similarities with the Australian system and, although lights will not be used at any stage, the coloured clothing and white balls, already de rigueur in the AXA League, will.

Apart from the unfortunate timing of the competition, which gives the nation little time to savour England's Test series win over South Africa, the competition - now that Texaco have ended their sponsorship of limited- over internationals - could yet be the shape of things to come.

Already there have been murmurs emanating from the office of Lord MacLaurin that future seasons - after 1999 - could see two Test series split by a one-day triangular. If true it will mean more cricket for the top players, a proposal far from satisfactory, particularly if it means less and not more five-match Test series.

England's first game is not until Sunday at Lord's where they take on Sri Lanka. When the pair played each other in the quarter-final of the last World Cup it was a non-contest and Sri Lanka won at a canter with 10 overs to spare.

During that competition Sri Lanka took "pinch hitting" to new levels with their opening partnership of Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana. On flat pitches the left-handed Jayasuriya can be particularly destructive.

Not as "agricultural" as some pinch hitters, Jayasuriya's power comes from phenomenal bat speed, something England's Alistair Brown also possesses. With Nick Knight no slouch either you will not want to be late taking your seat.

Sri Lanka's middle order is not too shabby either and oozes experience, as does their spin attack led by Muttiah Muralitharan. Stalwarts like Aravinda de Silva (236 caps), Arjuna Ranatunga (239) and Hashan Tillakaratne (164) can all score at five runs per over in their sleep. If the pitches are true, no total will be entirely safe against Sri Lanka while they are at the crease.

Compare that with the England captain, Alec Stewart (102 caps), and his South African counterpart, Hansie Cronje (140), the most capped members of the opposition, and the gap is startling. Ironically, with their one- day prowess now an accepted fact, it is the one-off Test against England at The Oval that Ranatunga and his men will most want to win.

Having named an extended squad of 37 players in their build-up to the World Cup, England, with a hard core of six or seven players, are still experimenting around the margins.

Following the recent fashion for "bit and pieces" all-rounders, it is the turn for specialists such as Michael Atherton, Alan Mullally, Peter Martin and now Dean Headley for Angus Fraser - still struggling with a sore back - to take centre stage. Apparently their recall owes much to the theory that the white ball moves about more than its red counterpart, and that their added technique will be able to exploit that. Or, as in Atherton's case, repel it.

South Africa's prominence at this form of the game comes from playing the percentages. Instead of relying on risk, they put their faith in accurate and testing bowling, backing it up by probably the finest fielding in world cricket. Their standard has been set by that terrier in flannels, Jonty Rhodes.

It is a combination not easy to suppress, as England found to their cost when they lost 2-1 earlier in the summer, and only the sapping nature of the ding-dong Test series with England will have perhaps weakened South Africa's resolve to win again.

If there is any doubt an expected full house at Edgbaston on Tuesday will see if the theory holds water.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka, possibly without Jayasuriya, who injured his hand batting against Kent, get to sound out South Africa, probably their biggest threat come May next year. Trent Bridge will not be full, only around 9,000 of the 15,000 available tickets have been sold, but those who do go along may just be getting a sneak preview of next year's World Cup final.

South Africa: M Rindel, G Kirsten, J Kallis, D Cullinan, H Cronje (captain), J Rhodes, S Pollock, P Symcox, M Boucher, S Elworthy, A Donald.

Sri Lanka (from): R Kaluwitharana, S Jayasuriya, R Arnold, M Atapattu, A de Silva, A Ranatunga (captain), H Tillakaratne or M Jayawardene, C Hathurusingha, K Dharmasena, M Muralitharan, P Wickramasinghe, S Perera.

n Bob Cottam will replace John Emburey as assistant to the England coach, David Lloyd, for this winter's Ashes tour.