Sri Lanka's standing as a Test side is yet to match their achievements in one-day cricket, but the country's reputation as one of the toughest destinations for a touring side is not a product of mythology, it is built on fact. Since England's remarkable series victory in March 2001, Sri Lanka has become the second hardest venue for an overseas side to record a Test victory. During this period Sri Lanka have lost just 15 per cent of their home matches. Australia, at five per cent, are the only team to have lost fewer Tests at home. England's defeat percentage is 22.
Michael Vaughan's goal when he departs on Thursday is to repeat the achievements of Nasser Hussain six and a half years ago. Hussain rated England's 2-1 series win as his best as captain and should Vaughan emulate his predecessor it will be a victory, in cricketing terms, to rival that over Australia in 2005.
Vaughan and England could do with a win. They have won only two of their seven Test series since the 2005 Ashes, and their ranking as the second best side in Test cricket is under threat. Vaughan's position is secure even though the England one-day side continues to make progress under the guidance of Paul Collingwood. Vaughan remains an outstanding leader but he will need to be at his best from next month because the pressure on him will begin to increase should England fail to win either of this winter's Test series in Sri Lanka or New Zealand.
But what is it that makes this verdant, fascinating and welcoming island such a challenging place to tour, and what must England do to win there? In Muttiah Muralitharan, Sri Lanka possess possibly the greatest spin bowler the game has seen, and their batting line-up contains a couple of quality batsmen. But those players, no matter how good, should not make Sri Lanka unbeatable. The pitch and boundaries are the same length as anywhere else in the world. So what is the problem?
The first challenge hits you the moment the doors of the aeroplane open. It is hard to describe how hot and humid it can get in Colombo or Galle. Walking from the hotel to a taxi rank is enough to get a normal adult sweating. The preparation and attention to detail of a touring side is now far more advanced than it used to be and the players are fitter. They need to be.
Life is particularly hard for fast bowlers, whose fitness and character are given the ultimate test. Tim Munton, the former Warwickshire and England fast bowler, once left the field hallucinating on an A tour. Standing at fine leg he believed he could see pink elephants wandering around the ground. On another occasion Jonathan Agnew, the former Leicestershire and England fast bowler, was forced from the field with dehydration and was unable to return because he was suffering from palpitations.
Heat is one of the principal reasons why spin bowling plays such a huge role in Sri Lanka. Physically, it is almost impossible for a fast bowler to send down 20 high-quality overs in a day. Fast bowlers have had success there in the past, but they need to be used wisely. In 2001 Darren Gough, with 14 wickets in three Tests, was England's hero. Andrew Caddick played an important role, too. The pair bullied Sri Lanka's batsmen with the new ball before returning with a clever array of slower balls and cutters.
Sri Lankan batsmen used to have the reputation of being scared of the fast men, especially when abroad on quicker and bouncier pitches. But this is no longer the case. Sanath Jayasuriya, Kumar Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Tillakaratne Dilshan are capable of scoring runs against any attack. Kandy, the venue of the first Test, will offer England's pacemen some encouragement, but Sri Lankan groundsmen produce slow, low, spinning surfaces to protect their batsmen and help their slower bowlers.
There will be occasions when Ryan Sidebottom, James Anderson, Stephen Harmison and Stuart Broad will need to bend their backs and test the courage of the opposition with short, aggressive bowling, but more often than not it will be changes in pace and deft cutters that provide them with success. Gough, Caddick and Craig White successfully adapted after the first Test in 2001. The current attack will have become aware of this during last month's one-day series.
The encouraging thing for England's bowlers is that they caused Sri Lanka's top order plenty of problems during the 3-2 one-day victory. Sidebottom was magnificent, hitting the pitch hard and bowling a tight off-stump line. Anderson and Broad were good too and England will hope that Harmison arrives from South Africa with form, fitness and confidence high.
Spin will play a huge role but again there is room for cheer. Monty Panesar will have plenty of bowling, as will Graeme Swann in an attack that is likely to contain two spinners. Swann, aided by the foot holes created by Sidebottom in his follow-through, caused the Sri Lankan batsmen genuine problems in the one-dayers with his off-spin.
Victory for England will depend on how the bowlers adapt, avoiding defeat is the batsman's responsibility. The climate means that cricket in Sri Lanka is played at a slower tempo and that is something England's batsmen need to be wary of. Scoring at four runs an over has become the norm but here a more cautious approach needs to be adopted. The cricket played is generally attritional with most games going in to a fifth day.
In 2003/04 Sri Lanka wore England down. Vaughan's side battled to avoid defeat in the first two Tests but in the final game they buckled. Muralitharan, predictably, will be the main threat, bowling approximately 40 per cent of his side's overs. In 2001 England nullified his spin by padding him away – a tactic that caused him to develop his doosra, a delivery that spins the other way. The doosra means batsmen can no longer pad him away with any certainty.
Muralitharan's threat increases as the game progresses and it is therefore imperative that England bat well in the first innings. When batsmen get in they have to make it count because Muralitharan is at his most dangerous against a new batsman and he can whittle through a team's lower order in five overs. Many top batsmen believe the first 20 balls they face from him to be the most difficult in cricket.
Muralitharan is the dangerman but Sri Lanka's seamers should not be ignored. Chaminda Vaas is as canny as any bowler, Lasith Malinga will reverse swing the old ball at pace and Dilhara Fernando is beginning to look the part.
Sri Lanka are favourites, but England can place the hosts under pressure if they post first innings totals of 400 plus. Sri Lanka, though, do appear vulnerable. They lost the one-day series at home to England, are currently getting walloped by Australia and have a member of their side, Marvan Atapattu, a former captain, calling the selectors "muppets" and "jokers". It just might be the right time for England to start reasserting themselves after a couple of quiet years.
England's Test record in Sri Lanka
Lost three-match series 1-0
Won three-match series 2-1
Lost single Test match
Won single Test match
Better than average? England's squad for the three-Test tour to Sri Lanka
Three players in the squad have toured with England in Sri Lanka:
* Michael Vaughan. Test batting average 43.94. Average in Sri Lanka 31.88
* Paul Collingwood. Test batting average 43.82. Average in Sri Lanka 22.25
* James Anderson. One Test, no wickets
Michael Vaughan (bat) (Age 33, 70 Tests, capt) Averages: Batting 5,141 runs @ 43.94; Bowling 6 wkts @ 92.50
Alastair Cook (batsman) (22, 21) 1,658 runs @ 44.81
Ian Bell (batsman) (25, 30) 2,035 runs @ 42.39; 1 wkt @ 76.00
Kevin Pietersen (batsman) (27, 30 2,898 runs @ 52.69; 2 wkts @ 131.00
Owais Shah (batsman) (29, 2 136 runs @ 34.00
Paul Collingwood (all-rounder) (31, 27 2,016 runs @ 43.82; 6 wkts @ 70.83
Ravi Bopara (all-rounder) (22, 0)
Matt Prior (wicketkeeper) (25, 7 397 runs @ 39.70
Steve Harmison (fast bowler) (29, 54)205 wkts @ 30.82
James Anderson (fast bowler) (25, 19 60 wkts @ 37.73
Matthew Hoggard (fast bowler) (30, 64 240 wkts @ 30.03
Monty Panesar (spin bowler) (25, 20 73 wkts @ 30.80
Ryan Sidebottom (fast bowler) (29, 7 24 wkts @ 28.41
Stuart Broad (fast bowler) (21, 0)
Phil Mustard (wicketkeeper) (25, 0)
Graeme Swann (spin bowler) (28, 0)