Pitch lift for England's pace men

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The Independent Online

To begin with, England's first one-day international in Sri Lanka will feel no different to the three they have just played in Bangladesh. When James Anderson runs in to bowl he will be up against two diminutive opening batsmen and the heat, noise and pitch will all appear the same.

This, however, is where the similarities end. The two batsmen may be on the short side, but, unlike those in Dhaka Sanath Jayasuriya, and Romesh Kaluwitharana have class and are capable of smashing any bowler out of the ground. Michael Vaughan was correct when he said that these three one-day games will be the toughest test yet for this England side since he took over as captain.

England have made encouraging progress under Vaughan since the World Cup. Several senior players chose England's early exit from the tournament as the moment to retire, giving this team a youthful and exciting feel about it. The results have been good, too. England have won 10 of the 13 limited-over games they have played under Vaughan.

Before returning to Colombo for the final two games in this series Vaughan's side will play their opening encounter this morning in the ancient city of Dambulla. A four-hour drive from the capital and in the heart of Sri Lanka, Dambulla is famous for its Buddhist cave temples which date back to 85BC.

In 2000 this 30,000-seater stadium was readied for its first game - between Sri Lanka and England - in just 167 days. Construction is not yet finished although lights have been erected and this will be the ground's first day/night match.

The Rangiri Dambulla Stadium owes its construction to the fact that there is not much rain in this area. This, the Sri Lankan cricket officials hoped, would allow the island to host one-day matches throughout the year. But, after passing through miles of lush green vegetation on the way to the ground, and then seeing threatening black clouds on the surrounding hills, it is hard to believe the location's record for aridity.

In the eight one-day matches to have been played here since 2000 the ground has built a reputation as a bowler's pitch. This is backed up by statistics which show that only four batsmen have scored fifties here and the average first-innings score is 166.

Situated within throwing distance of Lake Kandalama, the ground, unlike most in Sri Lanka, has seen the quicker bowlers flourish. The high water table causes the pitch to retain plenty of moisture and this will give England something to work with.

England look set to recall Richard Johnson and Ashley Giles who were rested for the final game in Bangladesh. James Kirtley and Gareth Batty will return to their roles as drinks waiters.

However, England have a difficult decision to make at the top of the order where Vikram Solanki has scored just 11 runs in his last four visits to the crease. If the Worcestershire opener were to be dropped, Andrew Strauss would be the probable replacement but many feel that Vaughan should also open the batting for England in one-day cricket.

After scoring heavily and looking the part in the two warm-up games he has played for England Strauss should play. However, Vaughan may be tempted to open in this match because it would then allow England to play Anthony McGrath whose medium pace swingers could be useful in these close, humid conditions.

Though visiting teams' seamers have enjoyed bowling here this has also been a venue where Muttiah Muralitharan has thrived. On the five occasions the world's leading spinner has turned his arm over here he has taken 17 wickets at an average of just 8.6.

England do not need to be told of the threat Sri Lanka offer. Vaughan and the England coach, Duncan Fletcher, were present at the series launch on Friday where the home side's success in the 1996 World Cup was given high profile. It may have been eight years ago but it is an achievement that has so far evaded the England cricket team.

SRI LANKA (from): M S Atapattu (capt), S T Jayasuriya, K C Sangakkara, D P M S Jayawardene, R P Arnold, T M Dilshan, U D U Chandana, H D P K Dharmasena, W P U J C Vaas, K A D M Fernando, M Muralitharan, D N T Zoysa, L P C Silva, K M D N Kulasekera, R S Kaluwitharana (wkt), S K L De Silva.

ENGLAND (from): M P Vaughan (capt), M E Trescothick, V S Solanki, P D Collingwood, A Flintoff, I D Blackwell, R Clarke, C M W Read (wkt), A F Giles, R L Johnson, J M Anderson, A McGrath, G J Batty, A J Strauss, R J Kirtley.

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