Sri Lanka unlikely to repeat 2014 heroics - First Test Preview
First Test - England v Sri Lanka in Leeds
19th May | 11:00 local | 10:00 GMT
It was their first series defeat at home to Sri Lanka and came swiftly after the 5-0 whitewash in Australia. Alastair Cook’s position was being questioned and England’s style of cricket was turning many supporters off.
Fast forward to Thursday’s first Test of three against Angelo Mathews' Sri Lankans at the same ground and things have changed markedly.
England now hold the Ashes, have just beaten the world’s number one Test side in their own conditions and have an exciting team with plenty of potential.
The change in fortune has been due to the emergence of several cricketers now ranked among the world’s best in Joe Root and Ben Stokes and the re-emergence of Cook, Anderson and Stuart Broad.
Trevor Bayliss has had an impact too, particularly on Cook’s captaincy which appears from the outside to be more enlightened and receptive to change.
While confidence is high, this summer is an important one for England who still have questions, particularly over their batting, to answer. The improvement of the side has been impressive, but they still have plenty of work to do to move up the ICC rankings from their current position of fourth.
With the sudden retirement of James Taylor for health reasons, James Vince of Hampshire gets an opportunity to start his Test career at number five in the order. Vince has been around the set-up for a while and Bayliss has been impressed with what he has seen. His form is also good, scoring a fine hundred against the county champions Yorkshire earlier this season.
While the rest of the order is the same as it was in South Africa, there are questions to be answered by Alex Hales and Nick Compton who both struggled throughout that series.
The selectors have rightly been consistent, but both will have to score runs before the series is out to retain their places for the Pakistan Test matches that follow later in the summer.
Root, fresh from being named as England’s player of the year this week, and Cook have been England’s two standout batters in the past 18 months, but they will need more support from the top order if England are to have sustained success.
Too often in the recent past, England have suffered collapses and it is something they must address.
Cook requires just 36 runs to join an exclusive band of batsmen, and become the first Englishman, to score 10,000 in Test cricket. It will be a fine achievement for a supreme Test match batsman. At 31, he has plenty of time to further add to that tally too.
On the bowling front, Nottinghamshire’s 25 year-old Jake Ball, impressive so far this first-class season with 26 wickets, has been included in the squad, but Steven Finn should return to the side despite some patchy form for Middlesex. Finn is an x-factor bowler and before his injury in South Africa was the pick of England’s seamers in that series.
With Mark Wood ruled out by injury and Liam Plunkett dropping out of favour, Ball is the next candidate to stake his claim to add depth to England’s attack, one that has been reliant on Anderson and Broad for the last year or so. It is an area England need to consider, especially with Anderson coming to the end of his career.
Nevertheless, it is a formidable pace attack, particularly in English conditions, and Sri Lanka’s batsmen will have it tough at Headingley where the ball will move around and the pitch, two days out from the game, had plenty of grass still on it. Moeen Ali’s off-spin is unlikely to see too much action.
Sri Lanka will have to combat England’s seamers without Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene who have both retired from international cricket. The loss of these two greats of the game will not help Sri Lanka overcome a recent poor run in Tests with just one series win in their last five.
In their warm-up games against Essex and Leicestershire, Sri Lanka’s batsmen have so far struggled with the early season conditions with only opener Dimuth Karunaratne finding any real form and confidence with a century in Leicester.
They also have an injury problem with experienced fast bowler Dhammika Prasad, who took 41 wickets at an average of 25 last year, ruled out of the first Test with a shoulder problem picked up against Essex.
Sri Lanka’s attack does have three bowlers who tasted success in England in 2014 though, and has the ability to do the same again.
Someone new to English fans will be Dushmantha Chameera, a raw but quick right-arm seamer, who regularly hits 90mph. Mathews said his bowling during a Test in last June’s series against Pakistan was the quickest he has seen and Chameera further underlined his promise with match figures of 115 for nine against New Zealand in Hamilton last year.
Spinner Rangana Herath is still Sri Lanka’s danger man, though, and he has a good record against England with 33 wickets at 30 from seven Tests. It is unlikely he will be offered dry pitches with which to operate, but he will at least provide control even if the Headingley pitch offers little turn as expected.
Despite the experience of Herath and the batting class of Matthews, it looks a raw Sri Lankan batting side and for that reason England should win with a bit to spare. The main worry will be the weather with plenty of rain forecast meaning the draw also looks a good bet.
This is an important summer for England’s development. They are in a good space and confidence will be high after their exploits in South Africa but with several places in the batting order to be settled and the depth of the bowling attack to be worked on, a lot is riding on the series besides just the result.
England should win if the rain stays away and their bowlers get it right. Sri Lanka could be in for a long series.
© Cricket World 2016