England start fresh cycle with goal of world domination

Strauss' side return to Test action post-Ashes but Sophia Gardens set to offer little fanfare
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The conquering heroes will return today in a blaze of glory. Or, at least, England will play their first Test match since the astonishing Ashes victory, in front of a group of people too small to be described as a crowd. In Cardiff of all places. It seems somehow inadequate.

Whatever else it might be, Sophia Gardens in late May will feel nothing like Sydney Cricket Ground in early January. Nothing at all. It as well then that the captain and architect of the triumph in Australia is distinctly unbothered.

Andrew Strauss sees the start of the new series, the first of two this summer, as a new beginning for England. The winter is behind them. The Ashes are dead, long live the Sri Lankan series.

"It is not a homecoming," he said yesterday. "If we were going to have a homecoming, that would have taken place a long time ago. This is a new cycle in a way. It is the start of a very busy and difficult summer for us and it is hopefully an opportunity for us to make a step forward to becoming No 1 in the world. For us to be thinking too much back to what happened in Sydney at this stage is not helpful." So there.

But what happened in Sydney and at other points around Australia should persuade England that they have what it takes to be the best Test side in the world. Stuart Law, the coach of Sri Lanka, has missed no opportunity to say that he thinks they are the top side already. The rankings put them at two, behind India, with Sri Lanka at four.

For England to assume the peak for the first time since official rankings began, they must defeat Sri Lanka and, later in the season, India. The first part of that should be well within their grasp and there was a new-beginning type of spring in England's step yesterday.

"The guys have been away from each other for a while which is quite a healthy thing," Strauss said. "Coming back together again is like the first day of school with a lot of tales about what has been going on in the county circuit and a reconnection between the players as to what we went through during the winter as well as a great deal of excitement over what's to come during the course of the summer."

It would undoubtedly help England for several reasons if Kevin Pietersen could find some semblance of proper form quickly. If Pietersen was not the only individual about whom Strauss was asked yesterday he was the first.

Perhaps it has always been thus. No doubt Denis Compton was the focus of attention when he was playing, as were Tony Greig, Ian Botham and more recently Andrew Flintoff. But if it is inevitable it is still unhealthy for the balance of the dressing room and Strauss's instinctive if fleeting grimace when the question came suggested that he might agree. "Kevin and I have spoken about a number of things," said Strauss. "Everything KP does is analysed to the nth degree. The perception of him outside the dressing room is often very different to the perception of him inside. He seems in a really good place mentally, he's determined to enjoy his cricket."

Both sides look to have plenty of runs in them. The major difficulty, as always, will be the taking of 20 wickets. England, having thrice beaten Australia by an innings and with only three defeats in their last 27 matches encompassing six series wins out of seven, must fancy their chances.

Sri Lanka's bold decision to play six batsmen and five bowlers puts a huge onus on their top five, illustrious though it undoubtedly is. The last time these sides met, in the World Cup quarter-final, Sri Lanka won at a gallop by 10 wickets. But Colombo, like Sydney, is not Cardiff.

It must be to England's advantage that Sri Lanka have played 24 of their last 26 Test matches going back to 2007 on the subcontinent. The quality of the bowling they can expect to face now is probably the highest around.

The widespread feeling is that the pitch will be slow and unhelpful to most bowlers. In the only other Test at the ground two years ago, progress was mostly sedate as Australia amassed 674 for 6 from 181 overs. It was memorable because England hung on for a draw with nine wickets down. It was also Monty Panesar's last Test match, with no certainty that that sentence will not be written when his career ends.

There may or may not be clues about the surface from the Championship matches that have been played at Sophia Gardens this summer. Glamorgan have won two of them, the last by an innings, though the Second Division opposition was weak on both occasions. In the middle match, Surrey made 575 for 7.

England can expect to work hard for their wickets. But in a pace attack that will probably comprise Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad and Chris Tremlett, with Steve Finn 12th man, they have a unit capable of dismantling top-order batsman. The trio has never played together before. Tremlett came into the side last winter only after Broad was injured. If the pair can extract some bounce, that may not be to the Sri Lankans' liking. But Graeme Swann, the spinner, may not be underworked.

England have hardly been as audacious as the Sri Lankans in their team selection but with the second Test next week at Lord's they take the risk of their bowlers being tired early. They have no fifth bowler. The only other time there was a Test match here all five bowlers delivered more than 30 overs with a sixth chipping in with nine.

The spare bowling duties will be done by Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen, with the latter almost back to where he started. When he was still a young firebrand, qualifying to play for England, Pietersen made no bones about the fact that his off-spin would have to be integral to selection. Then the pyrotechnics began and it was all but forgotten. It may come riding to the rescue now.

England deserve better than they are getting. For all Strauss's well-intentioned desire to look forward their deeds of the winter still deserved to be marked by a huge welcoming crowd at their next match. Instead the Welsh public has given them the cold shoulder with barely 5,000 tickets sold for the match today.

There were high attendances for the Ashes Test two years ago but 55 per cent of the audience came from England. It may be that the traffic over the Severn Bridge will have to increase this time for England to get their due in a series which itself merits more attention.

The concept of having seven Test matches in the summer – which has always had the feel of being one, even two, too many – began in 2000. Since then each year has been split into series of two and five matches or three and four. Until now the first of the summer has always been at Lord's. Sophia Gardens has five days to show itself an acceptable replacement, the place where England launched their charge to No 1.

First Test details

Possible teams:

England A J Strauss (capt), A N Cook, I J L Trott, K P Pietersen, I R Bell, E J G Morgan, M J Prior (wkt), S C J Broad, G P Swann, C T Tremlett, J M Anderson.

Sri Lanka T M Dilshan (capt), N T Paranavitana, K C Sangakkara, D P M D Jayawardene, T T Samaraweera, H A P W Jayawardene (wkt), M F Maharoof, N L T C Perera, H M R K B Herath, C R D Fernando, U W M B C A Welagedara.

Umpires A Dar (Pak) and B Doctrove (WI).

Third umpire R Tucker (Aus).

Match referee J Srinath (Ind).

Pitch report Looks dry, likely to be slow and therefore slow scoring but may deteriorate late in the match.

Weather Conditions are likely to be cool and breezy, with light rain showers expected. Maximum temperature: 15C.

Television Sky Sports 1, HD 1: 10am-7pm. Highlights Channel Five, 7-8pm.

Odds England 10-11 Sri Lanka 9-2 Draw 13-8