Sri Lanka Tour: Moody digs in on a sticky wicket

Fresh weather, fresher pitches and a team in transition will test the England coach and his new captain
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The Independent Online

Sri Lanka have arrived. They come saddled with several burdens, not least of which is having to follow that. "That" being the events of last summer, the epic contest for the Ashes which changed a game and the attitudes to it.

Nothing can follow that, of course, nothing ever will, and in such a context the impossible is being asked of a touring team beginning a much-delayed transitional period in the cricketing conditions most alien to them with a temporary captain. Despite these difficulties, tickets have sold well. Lord's is effectively full on the second and third days, likewise Edgbaston, while Trent Bridge expects more than 90 per cent capacity on the first three days.

Sri Lanka's squad contains one legend, several formidable players, and many otherswho are being willed to form the next generation. From the stifling heat of Colombo to a raw English spring is one of the biggest leaps in conditions a cricketer can make, and any novice Sri Lankan doubting the truth of that will know better when the squad pitch up in Derby for three days next weekend.

That match against English cricket's weakest - despite their efforts at The Oval last week - county is the middle of only three they will play (they start against British Universities tomorrow and finish against England A) before Test cricket in this country resumes at Lord's on 11 May. Or put another way, to stress the interminable nature of modern cricket, only seven weeks after England secured their famous victory in Bombay, after which many of them have played in a seven-match one-day series, and a mere five after Sri Lanka lost a home Test series to Pakistan.

"We have had a couple of weeks off," said their Australian coach, Tom Moody, ruefully. "Everyone is in the same boat these days, we have given them that time to themselves on pur-pose to completely freshen up."

The probability is, however, that the pitches will be considerably fresher than the Sri Lankans. They know that a sequence of half-volleys inviting them on to the front foot is not in prospect. "It will be no surprise to find the ball whistling round our ears," Moody said. "We expect it and actually we'd be alarmed if we didn't get it. It's a tactic that England use."

Several other factors are against Sri Lanka. England in May is bad enough, but they are poor travellers anywhere. Of their 43 Test wins, only 13 have been away from home and only four of those outside the subcontinent: two in Zimbabwe, one in New Zealand and one, above all, in England at The Oval in 1998.

The key to that triumph, the key to so many of their triumphs, was Muttiah Muralitharan. With him, in their side Sri Lanka have achieved 38 of their victories. On English pitches at this time of year he is unlikely to be the decisive factor, and while he will still bowl over after over, the doosra will have to stay in its sheath for fear of upsetting the authorities again. In any case, The Oval was a glorious one-off on a short trip.

"Being and playing away from home is something we've talked about at length," said Moody. "We're making some progress on the issues relating to it. It's true of every team. Conditions are very extreme in Sri Lanka, that's why all teams have difficulties playing there. Sri Lanka know their back yard inside out, but stepping out of that environment is a challenge for them and maybe one they haven't taken as well as they could have. Now is the time to set the record straight."

That is beyond improbable. Sri Lanka will do well to escape with two draws. They might be able to cope with the thin support for Murali and the left-arm swing bowler Chaminda Vaas (they always have, although the 26-year-old leg-break bowler Malinga Bandara was top of Gloucestershire's Championship averages last season in no time). But there are two glaring omissions at the top of the batting order. Sanath Jayasuriya has retired from Test cricket and Marvan Atapattu, who would have been captain of the party, is back at home desperately seeking a cure for his injured back.

They have been a towering partnership in their country's short Test history. They opened together in 68 matches, the last in September 2005, and put on 4,432 runs at a respectable average of 40. Only Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes of West Indies opened together more frequently, and only they and the Australians Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer have scored more together.

The job in this series will probably be done by Upul Tharanga and Michael Vandort, who both have Test centuries (against Bangladesh) in their brief careers. It threatens to make matters more onerous for the men behind them, not least the eminently capable wicketkeeper Kumar Sangakkara and the stand-in captain, the elegant Mahela Jayawardene.

To him falls the hardest task and he can only hope that his batting form stands up to the test. It has sometimes been fragile lately. "Marvan and I have been a partnership for a couple of years now," he said. "We know the players we want, and this is the team for the next five years." Jayawardene scored a century at Lord's in 2002. He may need to do so again.