England’s winter finally resumes on Thursday as the first of two Test matches in Sri Lanka begins in Galle. A bleak January is about to get a whole lot better.
With a tour of India scheduled almost immediately after the Sri Lanka fixtures, some are billing this one as a warm-up series before the ‘big’ tour of the winter. England would do well to respect the series, however; while the hosts are no longer the side they were ten years ago, Sri Lanka always ask plenty of searching questions in their own backyard.
‘Horses for courses’ is a phrase you’ll likely hear plenty of over the next few weeks. With Ben Stokes, Jofra Archer, and Rory Burns all absent, the tourists will have to cope without three of their Test regulars in conditions far removed for those found in England.
Although Jofra Archer may have been rested anyway, such is the docile nature of sub-continental pitches for the quicker men, Stoke and Burns would surely have represented two of England’s top 6. That means a little chopping and changing will be required, but it often is in such spin-friendly conditions anyway.
Jonny Bairstow could feature again at number 3, while Chris Silverwood hinted over the weekend that Dan Lawrence is poised to make his Test debut. With the Essex man likely to slot in at number 5, that would presumably leave a top six consisting of Dom Sibley, Zak Crawley, Bairstow, Joe Root, Lawrence, and Jos Buttler. From there, five bowling spots are up for grabs with around eight or nine men vying for them.
Exactly how England balance that lower middle order will be really interesting to see. Do they go with three spinners and rely on the all-round abilities of Sam Curran and Chris Woakes? Do they grant a spot to someone with extra pace in Mark Wood or Olly Stone? The good thing is that England have options – the tricky part is knowing which of them to use.
Possible XI: Sibley, Crawley, Bairstow, Root (c), Lawrence, Buttler, Curran, Bess, Leach, Broad, Wood
Coping with the expectation
Joe Root will be hoping that his spinners can emulate what they did the last time they toured Sri Lanka; the 3-0 scoreline was completely deserved, as Moeen Ali, Jack Leach, and Adil Rashid all had hands in England’s victory.
Two things will dictate whether England have a successful tour: the number of runs they can score in their first innings, and the way their spinners deliver. The difference this time is the experience of those slower bowlers.
Much will rest on the shoulders of 23-year-old Dom Bess, who will have a different kind of pressure on him for the first time in his England career. He is quite rightly the man currently in possession of that front-line spinner spot, but he’s never toured the subcontinent as an international before.
How he copes when faced with a 200-run lead and a turning track will go a long way to deciding the outcome of the tour; Leach hasn’t played much cricket recently, Moeen is unavailable for at least the first Test and it is unclear yet whether England will dip into their reserves for a replacement – with Amar Virdi, Matt Parkinson and Mason Crane to choose from.
With all of that in mind, this series could well prove to be the making of Dom Bess.
It’s never easy playing the hosts on their home turf but they are without many of their stars of old, while Root’s side arrive on the back of three consecutive Test series victories and with the knowledge of exactly what it takes to win in Sri Lanka.
With that in mind, we’re backing England to start a busy year of cricket with a 2-0 series win!
Following the action
As is normal these days, the games will both be played behind closed doors. Flicking on the TV and seeing a smattering of supporters in New Zealand or Australia has all too quickly become an added treat rather than the expectation.
We can but hope that things look a little different in the summer and that we are once again able to cheer on from the stands as opposed to our own living rooms.
For now, though, set your alarms for 4:30am on Thursday, and ensure that your home office has a TV in it. There are worse setups to have to live with…