Spotlight on Strauss as No 1 status in danger

Bresnan and Finn set to come in with Panesar facing omission

Colombo

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.

Probable teams

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

England's options

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.

News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
Sport
footballMatch report: Real fight back to ruin Argentinian's debut
News
Bruce, left, with Cream bandmates Ginger Rogers, centre, and Eric Clapton in 1967
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
News
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
arts + entsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker