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England's bowlers must strike balance

History suggests tourists need five-man attack to counter pitch and heat

England's selectors will finally try to resolve the four-bowler problem today. Four bowlers have taken them to where they are in the world: the best Test team. Four bowlers have swept aside some of the world's most formidable batsmen in the past two years. Four bowlers have become the new rock'n'roll. The fab four indeed.

But the side's status is hanging by a thread – and probably a flat pitch or two – and they have to decide if a quartet will be sufficient to prevail in the two-match series against Sri Lanka which starts tomorrow. It is perverse that it has come to this.

It was not the bowlers who let England down in the series against Pakistan in the UAE earlier this winter which has put their hard-earned ranking in jeopardy. The bowlers have done everything asked of them on any pitch put in front of them.

But history, which is often cricket's smartest tactician, shows that when England have won in Sri Lanka they have done so with five bowlers. Both their victory in the inaugural Test match in the country in 1982 and their epic triumph in 2001, when Nasser Hussain's craftily led side came from one behind to win a three-Test rubber 2-1, were achieved with a quintet comprising three seamers and two spinners.

The requirement for such a balance comes from the flatness of the pitches and the oppressive heat, which together drain bowlers' souls. The selectors' options have been altered by Ravi Bopara's side strain, which precludes him bowling. He might, just, have been able to bowl sufficient overs to help out but a combination of Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen would struggle.

"It would be nice to have a fifth bowler and Ravi would be ideal for that role," said Jimmy Anderson, the leader of the attack, yesterday, perhaps deliberately underestimating how nice it would be. "But unfortunately he can't bowl and the selectors have to weigh up whether Trott and KP can do that role or if they need someone else.

"We anticipate a long time in the field, and generally around the world we anticipate that. There are not many dodgy pitches around these days. The less time we spend in the field the better and if we bowl them out cheaply it is better for us, and in relation to the heat the less time we're out there the better."

England lack an authentic all-rounder, a fact that their coach Andy Flower has regularly rued despite the unimpeachable record pre-UAE. Back in 1982 they had Ian Botham; 19 years later the unsung Craig White had a quietly effective series, bowling 70 overs in the three matches and hitting the winning runs at Kandy to bring the series level.

"We have got used to it and we have acclimatised over the past couple of weeks, but it is just going to be a real balancing act with Andrew Strauss managing his bowlers," Anderson said. "It is a difficult place to take 20 wickets, but everywhere is difficult to take 20 wickets apart from Trent Bridge in April. It is hard to get wickets whether we bowl a team out for 200 or 450, it is still hard to take the wickets and we know it is going to be hard work. We're prepared for that."

The injury scare over Anderson's new-ball partner Stuart Broad – and everyone agrees the new ball is crucial to the fielding side's aspirations – has resurfaced. Broad played in the second practice match, seemingly without adverse effect on the ankle he sprained before the first match but did not bowl in the nets yesterday. England insist he will bowl today.