England's final shot at redeeming an eminently forgettable winter starts tomorrow. The team that could hardly put a foot wrong for almost two years have spent the best part of three months barely putting one right, as if tumbling over in a three-legged race.
Their inability to deal authoritatively with spin has led to four consecutive Test match defeats, putting at risk their hard-earned status as the world's No 1 side. A last-ditch victory at the P Sara Stadium in the second Test against Sri Lanka would hardly salvage everything, but a fifth consecutive Test defeat for the first time in five years would provoke fevered speculation about the future of this team.
In its way, this sequence of disaster has been more shocking and surprising than the whitewash that engulfed the team led by Andrew Flintoff in Australia in 2006-07. England then knew they were playing against a world-class team coming to the end of its days and bent on vengeance, which was duly extracted.
But this time, England, led by Andrew Strauss, were the world-class outfit, a team of skill and fortitude, unbeaten in nine series going back three years, playing against two weaker and less-organised opponents in Pakistan and Sri Lanka. As it has turned out, England have won almost none of the key moments this winter, the ones which would have taken them over the line.
It is at least a measure of their self-belief, which seems somehow to be intact, that they have created vaguely winning chances from distinctly unpromising positions, in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Galle, but each time they have mucked it up. But self-belief is a first cousin of self-delusion, territory into which England are in danger of straying.
Before coming on the two tours they were careful to warn how hard it was to win in Asia, but never did they contemplate this happening. Four times England have lost, much for the same reason, and four times has come the valiant battle cry that they are still working hard, maybe even harder to do better. Well, they would, wouldn't they?
But they have not developed when confronted by spin, or not much, and each defective stroke under the shadow of Galle Fort, almost heretical so close to a World Heritage Site, confirmed it. Thus, while England, or some individual batsmen in their ranks, might be due, it is impossible to be confident about their prospects in Colombo.
The pitch at the PSS, said to be the best in the country, may encourage both seam and spin, and will almost certainly not permit a high-scoring draw. The past six Test matches there have all produced positive results, five of them in favour of Sri Lanka.
England's bowlers, who have dismissed the opposition twice in three of the four Tests of the winter, could easily put them in with a chance once more and a big hundred from some quarter would silence most of the speculation. A 4-1 win-loss ratio on the balance sheet for the winter would still be a pretty lousy return but going out on a high should never be underestimated.
But suppose England do make all the mistakes of the previous three months, what then? A strong case could still be made for retaining Strauss as captain. There exists a school of cod psychology, whose graduates should never be wholly disdained, that he may go of his own volition.
England's selectors, who have got many more things right than wrong of late, tend not to go in for statements of any depth. They deal in the anodyne, so that when a player is dropped he is sent on his way with a public reminder of his chances of a recall.
But if the inquest into the winter losses determines that Strauss (and perhaps the bulk of his team) remain England's best hope, banalities will not do. Geoff Miller, the chairman of selectors, and Hugh Morris, the England managing director, should then explain lucidly and forensically why they think Strauss is still the best man to do the job. Incidentally, the dressing room still adores him.
For now, the England selectors on the ground, Strauss and the coach, Andy Flower, have to decide which XI may give them the clearest chance of redemption. They have not been joined by any of the other selectors on this tour, although that is a clear breach of the Schofield Review recommendations, which followed the 5-0 whitewash to Australia.
It is one of cricket's greater perversities that the changes they are probably considering are to the bowling unit, which palpably did not get them into this mess, rather than the batting order, which just as conspicuously did. The top five will remain the same, Strauss with one hundred in 48 innings and one Test fifty all winter, never under greater scrutiny.
One change is enforced because of the calf injury to Stuart Broad which has forced his departure from the tour. In contention are Steve Finn and Tim Bresnan but, without it having been broadcast from the dressing room, there is a hint that both will play. If so, Monty Panesar may be omitted.
Panesar did not bowl badly in Galle, but by comparison with his fellow left-arm spinner, Rangana Herath, he paled. There is a question mark too over Samit Patel, whose batting in both innings on his debut at Galle looked overawed. He has come to Test cricket by a circuitous route as well as with a circuitous frame and, one match in, would seem to deserve another bash.
If Graeme Swann were to be the sole specialist spinner, Patel, who took first-innings wickets last week, would add spin ballast. Ravi Bopara has not had an opportunity but his claims are not helped by his inability to bowl because of a side strain.
There is no point in tipping an England win because they are a long way now from the side which stood atop the world last August.
It was unthinkable then to suspect that seven months later the position of Strauss, an inviolable captain, would be the subject of such conjecture and debate. But it is.
Sri Lanka: D P M D Jaywardene (c), H D R L Thirimanne, T M Dilshan, K C Sangakkara, T T Samaraweera, A D Mathews, H A P W Jayawardene (w), H K S Randiv, H M R K B Herath, R A S Lakmal, K T G D Prasad.
England A J Strauss (c), A N Cook, I J L Trott, K P Pietersen, I R Bell, M J Prior (wk), S R Patel, T T Bresnan, G P Swann, J M Anderson, S T Finn.
Pitch Two days away there was a tinge of green, which will be gone by tomorrow. But it should offer bowlers reason to keep going and batsmen will need to work in the heat.
Umpires Asad Rauf, B N J Oxenford
Bring in Bres
Tim Bresnan has played 10 Tests and won the lot. It is an amazing run. His recall alone will cause optimism. Likely to replace Stuart Broad.
The mighty Finn
It is extraordinary that Steve Finn is not in England's team. Quick and hostile, he is now on the verge of a recall in place of Monty Panesar.
Can Patel cut it?
In both his innings at Galle on his Test debut, Samit Patel was a rabbit in headlights. It is a gamble to keep him, but it would be harsh to drop him.
- More about:
- Freddie Flintoff
- Monty Panesar
- South Asia
- Sri Lanka
- Stuart Broad
- World Heritage Sites