One up, with one to play, is just the position Nasser Hussain and his England team would have wanted to be in as they prepared for today's third and final Test match against Sri Lanka at Old Trafford. And were Hussain's team playing this decisive match at any other Test ground in the country, bar The Oval, they could already be expecting to hear a rather large woman loosening her vocal chords.
However, she is not, because England are in Manchester, at a ground where they have won only once in the last 20 years, against the West Indies in 1995.
The home side's chances of breaking this dreadful run improved yesterday when Mark Butcher, who is not fully fit, announced that he is prepared to play. This appears good enough for the selectors, who are not only keen to field the same side that beat the tourists at Edgbaston 10 days ago, but also hope to continue nullifying the threat of Sri Lanka's king of spin, Muttiah Muralitharan, with what appears his only weakness: bowling against left-handed batsmen.
England's only other concern was Graham Thorpe, who twisted his ankle during a warm-up game of football. He was however fit enough to have a gentle net after treatment and expects to be playing today.
Influencing the hosts' poor record here is the nature of the pitch, a surface Hussain describes as "the most non-English in the country." The non-Englishness of Old Trafford, which seems a contradiction in itself, is because the pitch is hard, dry and abrasive, which encourages spin bowling and reverse swing from the quicker bowlers. Reverse swing is a method of bowling mastered more by Asian bowlers than English, with the exception of Darren Gough, who Hussain stated he was "only prepared to play again this summer when he had recovered 100 per cent from his knee injury." This must make him doubtful for the triangular one-day series starting in two weeks' time.
It is the fact that this ground encourages spin bowlers on the fourth and fifth days of Tests that has given it the reputation of being the best Test pitch in the country. England may not echo this sentiment, because this ground has inspired their opponents' spin bowlers more than their own.
Ashley Giles is the spinner Hussain will be hoping makes an impact. Giles made his debut here in 1998 against South Africa, but, after taking 1 for 106 in that game, his memories will not be fond ones. He is not alone in doubting this venue as an oasis for spin bowling. In England's last five games here the spinners have taken 10 wickets at an average of 70.8, compared with the 24 at 24.63 taken by touring sides.
It was no surprise, then, that Dav Whatmore, the Sri Lanka coach, sounded upbeat and positive about his side's chances. With conditions best suiting Muralitharan, Sri Lanka's proven match winner, it is not difficult to see the visitors' reason for optimism. Whatmore, who spent two years here coaching Lancashire, would have realised that this venue was always going to give Sri Lanka their best chance of victory. It was something of an understatement when he said he "was pleased to see Old Trafford on the schedule of Test matches to be played on this tour."
The tourists will decide on their final XI this morning but it appears likely that the fast bowler Dilhara Fernando will play instead of his namesake Buddhika and it would be no surprise to see the off-spinning all-rounder Thilan Samaraweera replace one of the batsmen who under-performed at Edgbaston, probably Russel Arnold.
Alec Stewart was poised to join Graham Gooch as England's highest-capped Test cricketer with 118 appearances. He as much as anyone will want England to finish this half of the summer off in style.
ENGLAND (from): N Hussain (Essex, capt), M E Trescothick (Somerset), M A Butcher (Surrey), M P Vaughan (Yorkshire), G P Thorpe (Surrey), J P Crawley (Hampshire), A Flintoff (Lancashire), A J Stewart (Surrey, wkt), A J Tudor (Surrey), A R Caddick (Somerset), M J Hoggard (Yorkshire), A F Giles (Warwickshire), S P Jones (Glamorgan).
SRI LANKA (from): S T Jayasuriya (capt), M S Atapattu, K Sangakkara (wkt), D P M Jayawardene, P A de Silva, R P Arnold, H P Tillakaratne, W P U J C Vaas, D N T Zoysa, P D R L Perera, C R D Fernando, T T Samaraweera, M Muralitharan.
Umpires: S A Bucknor (WI) and D L Orchard (SA).
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