England must cast uncertainty aside to retain top rank
Sri Lanka do not pose the same threat as Pakistan but batsmen must banish nagging doubts
For a heady little while it was possible to become quite misty-eyed about England. Double Ashes champions, vanquishers of India, six consecutive series wins, No 1 side on the planet, masters of all they surveyed. No one should make that mistake again in a hurry.
In the United Arab Emirates, of all places, they came crashing down to earth in January, and a dusty landing it was too, outwitted and clobbered by Pakistan. Now is the time for England to atone, not least because their hard-won status could disappear.
If they lose the mini-series against Sri Lanka, which starts on Monday, their reign will end after a mere seven months, thus being bracketed for ever with the likes of Lady Jane Grey (monarchs) and Tony Tucker (heavyweight boxers). After the disasters in Dubai and the debacle in Abu Dhabi, where they contrived a total of 72 in chasing 145, it is impossible to be sanguine about their chances.
A side that can bat that primitively when confronted with high-class bowling cannot be easily entrusted with confidence a few weeks later. From the first morning against Pakistan they were hapless and never looked like recovering even when they had worked out the cure.
There is, however, one glaring difference, confirmed yesterday when Sri Lanka announced their squad of 14 for the two matches. No bowler in their ranks remotely matches the likes of the great Saeed Ajmal or, on his day, Abdur Rehman. A bunch of military-medium seamers, none of whom averages under 40 runs a wicket in their own country, is complemented by two spinners who may command respect but will not instil fear.
The batsmen, however, are from different stock. Three of them – their re-installed captain, Mahela Jayawardene, Kumar Sangakkara and Thilan Samaraweera – have Test batting averages above 50 and all are in form. Their moods have doubtless been enhanced by the fact that they have at last been paid in full after 10 months when their board was broke and could not afford to meet its obligations to the players.
The Galle pitch is an unknown quantity. Allegedly under-prepared, it was a capriciously bouncing nightmare from the off late last summer when Australia sneaked home. But in the previous match, in November 2010, Chris Gayle scored 333 for West Indies.
With the Sri Lankan Board (and government) under pressure to deliver, it should suit batting. That may play into England's hands because their bowlers operate on a different level from their opponents. The batsmen seem unfeasibly chipper, as Kevin Pietersen embodied yesterday. "I'm back to batting like I used to," he said. "I found it tough to find what I had last summer. It took a little bit of time but then it clicked. I remember doing one session with Mushy, I looked at him, he looked at me and it was like, 'we're back'.
"I had it last summer and let it go over two months when we had the break before Christmas. It's timing, it's picking the ball out of the hand, not the spinners, the best players in the world pick length the quickest. Guys like Sachin pick length as soon as the ball is delivered."
England are uncertain about their side and there are concerns about the form of Ian Bell. It would be nonsensical to drop a player who was such a titan in 2011 and his lack of runs should not influence the balance of the side.
The selectors will still wonder whether their usual four bowlers can dismiss Sri Lanka twice in the extreme heat that will prevail. Pietersen said he had never experienced anything like it as a player, which made it difficult to concentrate.
The debate, as it so often has, will surround the No 6 spot. Ravi Bopara came here as the most probable candidate but a side strain means he cannot bowl. That really would leave an unfair burden on the quartet. Samit Patel comes into the reckoning but he would be making his debut and his bowling may be plundered by voracious Sri Lankans.
Matt Prior could go there behind the out-of-form Bell, which would leave a place open possibly for Tim Bresnan at seven with two other seamers and two spinners. It is a tricky selection to be sure but no batting permutation should be exposed by Sri Lanka's bowlers.
England think they have shed their UAE woes. They insist they are better prepared. But they cannot be entirely trusted about that until they have performed next week. However, if they lose here change will be compulsory.
First Test: 1982 Sri Lanka v England
17-21 February, P Saravanamuttu Stadium, Sri Lanka won toss
Sri Lanka 218 (Madugalle 65, Ranatunga 54; Underwood 5-28) & 175 (Dias 77; Emburey 6-33)
England 223 (Gower 89; De Mel 4-70) & 171-3 (Tavare 85)
England win by seven wickets
Graham Gooch struggled to score highly in either innings of England’s first Test in Sri Lanka, the opener hitting 22 in the first innings and 31 in the second.
Tough tours: England's Test series results in Sri Lanka
1982 Won one-Test series 1-0
Colombo: Eng 223 and 171-3 bt SL 218 & 175 by seven wickets
1993 Lost one-Test series 1-0
Colombo: Eng 380 & 228. SL 469 & 142-5 won by five wickets
2001 Won three-Test series 2-1
Galle: SL 470-5d bt Eng 253 & 189 by innings and 28 runs
Kandy: Eng 387 & 161-7 bt SL 297 & 250 by three wickets
Colombo: SL 241 & 81 lost to Eng 249 & 74-6 by four wickets
2003 Lost three-Test series 1-0
Galle: SL 331 & 226 drew with Eng 235 & 210-9
Kandy: SL 382 & 279-7d drew with Eng 294 & 285-7
Colombo: SL 628-8d bt Eng 265 & 148 by innings and 215 runs
2007 Lost three-Test series 1-0
Kandy: SL 188 & 442-8d bt Eng 281 & 261 by 88 runs
Colombo: Eng 351 & 250-3 drew with SL 548-9d
Galle: SL 499-8d drew with Eng 81 & 251-6
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