England arrived in Sri Lanka two days ago ready to start playing international cricket again. In a week or two, they will know if the turkey shoot against Bangladesh - if such contests are nobody's fault, they are cricket's misfortune - remotely prepared them for what is about to ensue.
It is tempting for England to harbour fond recollections of Sri Lanka. The country was the scene three years ago of one the modern team's most admirable triumphs, the apogee of Duncan Fletcher's tenure as coach. They came from 1-0 down to win the three-Test series and in the process brought back Muttiah Muralitharan to the common herd. Never mind the teardrop island, this was laughter in paradise.
But memory is selective. Since that breathtaking day (in every sense) in Colombo, matters have taken a turn for the worse. England went on to play three one-day matches and lost the lot with increasing desperation. A year ago they returned, tired and bedraggled after a long domestic season, and were blasted out of sight by India in the Champions' Trophy.
So Sri Lanka is not quite the happy hunting ground for England that the events of the first part of 2001 might suggest. England will know that they have been in a proper contest whatever happens, starting on Tuesday with the first of three one-day internationals at Dambulla. The tourists' problems will be unchanged: draining heat and humidity, marauding batsmen, and Muralitharan.
The great spinner with a weirdly unorthodox action that it is now impossible to question has been talking a game that is disconcerting at the least for England. Like Shane Warne, the other wonder-spinner of the age, no new series can arrive for Murali without his having added some new mystery ball to his armoury. He has been talking about drift, a new top-spinner and a new back-spinner. These might be impossible according to the laws of physics, but then so is his mode of delivery.
Most of England's batsmen have faced Murali and will think they know what to expect, or not to expect. In private, many of them will harbour dark thoughts about his action. But Murali was cleared years ago. So disgracefully was he treated in the Nineties in Australia - where they targeted him because they feared him, not because they were adopting moral high ground - that he could now turn up with a catapult to launch his bowling and be cleared. England's relative paucity of slow bowlers was embodied yesterday by the call-up to the Test squad of Robert Croft, an off-spinner who played his last match in 2001. He is not Murali.
England will not be worrying - yet - about having had too much cricket, but Sri Lanka may be the only team in the world to complain about having had too little. Sri Lanka last played in June, since when England have played seven Test matches and 13 one-dayers. Thus, if one side is overboiled, the other may be undercooked.
Sri Lanka will begin as favourites, and not only because of Murali. Under Michael Vaughan, England have been playing bright, athletic one-day cricket at odds with what they purveyed before, and have won all three series they have played.
To do so in Sri Lanka they may need to enlist the support of the Sky commentary panel, who are not natural allies of the present side. England have won only one limited-overs match in Sri Lanka against Sri Lanka, and that was the first one in 1982. In the side were David Gower, Ian Botham, Bob Willis and Paul Allott.
England have lost all six matches since. It has to be mentioned that the man of the match in the solitary England victory was Botham. He was to England then what Andrew Flintoff is becoming now, a man for all parts at all times. Flintoff's exhibitions in Bangladesh were exemplary, a model of the all-rounder's art. His record recently, especially in the short form of the game, stands comparison with anybody in the world (and certainly with Botham). But for England to prevail in the first part of the tour he will need to do it again.
England could do with catching Sri Lanka cold at Dambulla. Lose there and the home side will be off and running. It will almost certainly be a low-scoring contest. The ground, Sri Lanka's most remote, was completed in record time and has not yet become accustomed to the normal pace of one-day cricket. In five matches there so far, no side have made 200. Lights have been hurriedly installed for the first day-night match there on Thursday: nobody will want to bat second.
England might not select from the players who served them so well in Bangladesh. There is some concern about the form of Vikram Solanki, though nothing has changed since he was picked as opening batsman in the summer. He still flirts outrageously against the new ball, but the selectors knew all about that.
Unfortunately for him, Andrew Strauss scored a half-century in the warm-up match yesterday, while Solanki made nought. The equation is obvious. The puzzling element about Solanki's selection - and his natural talent is as large as his self-discipline at the crease is small - is that it means Vaughan has to bat at three. Vaughan is one of the world's top batsmen, Solanki is not.
Vaughan and Marcus Trescothick are settled and set as England's Test opening pair, and nobody has come up with a logical reason why they should be separated in one-dayers. Unless England keep on winning, naturally. Solanki will be starting to feel the heat, but all of England will recognise a contest again.
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