England have to be bold as long countdown to the Ashes begins

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The Independent Online

At the start of a long, demanding season and after a debilitating nine-week tour of India, it would be tempting for England to be cautious prior to today's first Test against Sri Lanka at Lord's, but the selectors need to be bold when they pick their side. There may be an element of risk attached to giving four players home debuts in the same match but it is in England's long-term interest to select Alastair Cook, Liam Plunkett, Sajid Mahmood and Monty Panesar.

Sri Lanka are a dangerous team when conditions are to their liking but England in May is definitely not their cup of tea. The early tour form of the visitors, highlighted by last week's 10-wicket defeat to England A, has been unconvincing and whatever side the hosts select should be far too strong for Sri Lanka.

Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, will have the final say on who plays and his reluctance to pick a team that does not contain eight capable batsmen is well known. Yet Fletcher should refrain from playing an extra batsman - Ian Bell - and give Panesar, the exciting young left-arm spinner, a chance to impress.

Panesar is the bowler who would miss out if England choose to be conservative. The pitch has an early season green tinge to it and the seamers can expect to carry the bulk of the workload. Paul Collingwood could also bowl some useful medium pace. Panesar's figures in India, where he took five wickets in three Tests at an average of 62, are moderate, but he bowled far better than the statistics suggest. He conceded just over two and a half runs an over and his presence would help reduce the number of overs Andrew Flintoff has to bowl.

Jon Lewis, the 30-year-old Gloucestershire seamer, will compete with Mahmood and Plunkett for the final place in England's side and, again, it is to hoped the selectors go for youth. Plunkett played in two Test matches during the winter and is some way from being a force in international cricket. But he is tall, fit and strong, and his approach to cricket in Pakistan and India impressed everyone in the England set-up.

Mahmood, who has played in four one-day internationals but is yet to play Test cricket, is more of an unknown quantity. He has a slightly more rebellious nature than Plunkett, but anyone who has watched him bowl cannot have failed to notice his potential. Mahmood possesses a nice easy run-up and a loose-limbed action that is similar to that of Stephen Harmison. He can bowl at the same pace, too. But Flintoff, the England captain, was reluctant to draw comparisons.

"I do not see Sajid as a like for like replacement for Harmison," Flintoff said. "Harmison is a very special bowler. When he is firing he is probably the best in the world. Sajid is genuinely quick. He gets the ball down at 88/89mph. He gets bounce and he has a big future with England."

"I have no fear in how he will handle the occasion. He has played in front of 80,000 people in India, and they are big occasions. I am sure there will be a few nerves, but Sajid is a laid-back lad and I am sure he will get on with it."

England's success in India was helped by the fact that expectations were low. In Nagpur and Bombay the withdrawal of key players left the team in disarray, but under Flintoff's inspired leadership they surprised everyone with a remarkable series-levelling victory in Bombay.

The team that walks out this morning is likely to contain only six of the players who orchestrated last summer's Ashes success, but their ability to respond positively to difficult situations, and the quality of the opposition, has raised people's expectations. Despite being at half-strength, England are expected to win the series comfortably and it will be interesting to see how these youngsters perform under pressure.

"After last summer people are expecting us to win this series," Flintoff said. "Our success has placed us under more pressure but we know that if we play to our full potential, we will win the series. And that is our aim."

Sri Lanka's starting XI will also have a youthful feel to it without Sanath Jayasuriya - although the opening batsman is likely to join the squad this weekend after confirming yesterday he has reversed a decision to retire - and Marvan Atapattu, who will miss the series with a back injury. But Kumar Sangakkara, Chaminda Vaas, Muttiah Muralitharan and Mahela Jayawardene have outstanding Test records and will be desperate to perform at the home of cricket.

Jayawardene, the Sri Lankan captain, is hoping that the Lord's factor brings the best out of his side. He said: "For some of the youngsters who haven't played here, they look at the honours boards in our dressing-room and see that in the three times Sri Lanka have played here there are six names up there. It's a brilliant thing to look up to, and for the players to say I want to be up there as well."

Muralitharan, remarkably, is yet to play a Test at Lord's, and Jayawardene feels that the occasion could well bring out the best in him. "Murali is a great competitor and you never know what he will bring out of his bag of tricks," he said. "It will be great for him to finally play at Lord's and considering what he has achieved it will be something special for him to play here and take five wickets."

Today's probable teams at Lord's

England

A Flintoff (Lancs, capt) 59 caps

M E Trescothick (Som's't) 69

A J Strauss (Middlesex) 24

A N Cook (Essex) 2

K P Pietersen (Hants) 11

P D Collingwood (Durham) 8

G O Jones (Kent, wkt) 26

L E Plunkett (Durham) 2

M J Hoggard (Yorkshire) 51

S I Mahmood (Lancs) 0

M S Panesar (Northants) 3

Sri Lanka

D P M D Jayawardene (capt) 78 caps

W U Tharanga 5

M G Vandort 4

K C Sangakkara (wkt) 57

T M Dilshan 34

T T Samaraweera 37

C K Kapugedera 10

W P U J C Vaas 90

M F Maharoof 10

K M D N Kulasekera 2

S L Malinga 15

Three with most to prove

Paul Collingwood

Collingwood had an excellent winter, scoring his first Test hundred and proving that he was capable of performing at this level. The emergence of Alastair Cook puts him under pressure.

Geraint Jones

The debate on whether he should keep wicket for England never ends. Jones kept superbly in Bombay but his batting average is now below 28. Whenever he is under pressure he seems to perform, so expect a big score over the coming weeks.

Liam Plunkett

Plunkett's batting, with the obvious exception of Flintoff, separates him from the rest of England's fast bowlers. If he proves he can bat at eight, he has a good chance of playing regularly. If he does not, the likes of Simon Jones, James Anderson and Sajid Mahmood will play ahead of him.

Lord's weather

TODAY Sunny, max temp 22C

TOMORROW Sunny spells, 23C

SATURDAY Sunny intervals, 17C

SUNDAY Cloudy, 15C

MONDAY Cloudy, 16C

TV times

Today

Live: 10.30, Sky Sports 1

Highlights: 19.15, Five

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