If England lose heavily to Sri Lanka in the one-day series which begins tomorrow they will fall to eighth in the world rankings. The only surprise about this, considering the poverty of their performances in the past two years, is that they are still riding so high in the charts.
It would be wise to expect the worst in the next fortnight. Should England win two of the five matches – and, in doing so, take the series to a decider – they can consider themselves to have made significant progress. If they manage to win, it will be the best limited-overs result by any England team away from home.
But either of those outcomes is highly improbable. If that seems a mite harsh after the splendid victory against India in the recent septet of matchesat home, there have been too many bright false dawns followed by dark and stormy day-nighters. The bald fact is that England are – again – at the bottom of a steep learning curve which Mahela Jayawardene and his capable, entertaining side are likely to exploit fully.
Only five months ago, Sri Lanka deservedly reached the World Cup final. True, they were swept aside by a fero-ciously driven Australian team in a highly unsatisfactory match, but they were unquestionably the second-best team in the tournament. On their way to the final they beat England in an excruciatingly close match by two runs. England were ultimately unlucky in that encounter but it was their sixth successive defeat by Sri Lanka, having been whitewashed 5-0 at home in 2006.
England should have progressed sufficiently to avoid a similar fate but will need to compete early. There is undoubtedly a good spirit in the squad, who arrived in the jungle of the Sri Lanka interior yesterday close to the legendary rock fortress of Sigiriya. It is 100 miles and a world away from the busy, cosmopolitan atmosphere of Colombo, where the team spent the previous week, and all that is likely to keep them awake at nights is the sound of monkeys banging on their bedroom windows.
But spirit is relatively easy to engender at the start of a tournament. Sustaining it in defeat is the hard part for the captain, Paul Collingwood. England's plan will be to blast off at the start of their innings and hope to take wickets by judicious but hostile use of the fast, short-of-a-length ball. In Alastair Cook and Philip Mustard they will have their eighth different one-day openingpartnership of the year.
Mustard, though left-handed, is considered a like-for-like replacement for the injured Matt Prior but probably has a more natural instinct for hitting the ball in unusual areas. He will be given licence to hit the ball long, hard and early, and although there is a huge difference between doing it for Durham in parky Chester-le-Street and for England in the humidity of downtown Dambulla, he has something about him. If Mustard can come off once in every three innings, England will have had an electrifying start on each of those occasions.
The bowlers will have to be clever or Sri Lanka's battalion of dashing strokemakers will go after them. They would do well to digest the obituaries of the great Derek Shackleton, who died on Friday at the age of 83.
Shackleton bowled late outswing and, later, inswing, but he did so with metronomic accuracy which brought him 2,857 wickets. England's present crop of bowlers will hardly reach that tally combined, but they are beginning to understand the virtues of accuracy.
In home conditions, it is difficult to see Sri Lanka being much troubled. England have won only once against them in Sri Lanka, in the first match between the sides 25 years ago. Since then no match has been close.
The home team will probably be without Muttiah Muralitharan for the entire series, which will weaken but hardly disable them. If he is called up after the three matches in Dambulla for the two in Colombo it will mean that England are in touch.
Sri Lanka go to Australia for a Test series immediately after this and Muralitharan needs only nine wickets to overtake Shane Warne's record of 708. He would dearly love to do that in Australia but to do so he needs to be fit. He dare not risk aggravating his shoulder injury, and a one-day series against England suddenlyis of comparatively little consequence. Not, however, for England if their aspiration to 2011 World Cup glory is to be based on any kind of reality.
Meanwhile, Darren Maddy, who played four matches for England in the World Twenty20, is said to have signed for the Indian Cricket League, the breakaway inter-city Twenty20 competition due to start in November.