The England players sat in their hotel rooms glued to the final moments of India’s win at the Gabba and could not help enjoying what they saw.
“’The fortress has been broken, the Gabba has been breached,” said Joe Root on Wednesday. On Friday, it will be England’s turn to pick up the baton and try to ensure Test cricket continues its current bounce while building towards their own tilt on the Gabba later this year.
The second Test in Galle is an important game for England on several levels. Firstly, they want to wrap up a 2-0 series win and fifth consecutive victory away from home to keep alive faint hopes of reaching the World Test Championship final but it is also their last chance to play any cricket before the first Test at Chennai on Feb 5.
England will announce on Thursday that Ben Stokes, Jofra Archer, Rory Burns and Ollie Pope will reclaim their places in the squad for the India tour. The first three will leave the UK on Friday to begin seven days' quarantine in Chennai adding depth to a squad that has coped pretty well without them so far.
England will join them in India after this match (Pope is in Sri Lanka building up his fitness) but because of the quarantine period will only emerge into daylight again three days before the first Test. A couple of net sessions in Chennai and then it will be straight in to face the best team in the world coursing with even more confidence than usual.
So while every Test match is important in its own right, this one takes on added value as preparation for what they will face in Chennai where conditions in southern India, if not the opposition, will be similar to Galle.
It is with that in mind that England could rotate their seam attack. James Anderson needs overs before the India tour and will replace Stuart Broad.
Olly Stone is in consideration for his second Test with England keen to look at his potential with an eye on hard Australia pitches later this year and it is having depth in the squad that Root learned from the India win. Stone was the stand out fringe player in South Africa before Christmas and would have played if the ODI series had gone ahead. “It’s certainly an option. We couldn’t be more impressed with how he’s gone about his business,” said Root. “He looks fit, strong, he’s bowling quick and he’s given a very good account of himself. There might be an opportunity for him to play on this tour or whether that’s further down the line.”
Root has lots of options. The collapse last week could mean that Chris Woakes comes in for Mark Wood giving England two allrounders along with Sam Curran to lengthen the batting. Likewise, Woakes could replace Curran and Stone play for Wood, giving three new seamers a chance to build up for India. Root will make his mind up after Thursday’s final practice session.
It has been dry in Galle since the first Test and the forecast for this week is better so conditions could be more conducive for reversing the ball. There has not been a drawn Test in Sri Lanka for seven years and with the pitch, according to Root, looking ready for play two days before the game, that run is unlikely to change.
Moeen Ali’s unavailability after contracting covid, he is out of isolation but needs more time to regain full fitness, leaves England with little room for refreshing the spin attack. Dom Bess and Jack Leach endured highs and lows in the first Test, sharing 14 wickets, but both admitted it could have been a lot worse given their inconsistency. The encouraging aspect is they finished the Test strongly, rather than the other way around. Root did not rule out picking one of the three back up spinners if the conditions “demanded it” but it appears unlikely.
Dan Lawrence’s fine debut and Jonny Bairstow’s promising return makes this match vitally important for those looking at Burns, Stokes and Pope returning and worrying about their places. Dom Sibley is most under pressure while Lawrence will know he is the easiest one to leave out despite his fine start.
Sibley and Zak Crawley had poor matches last week but it was their first Test in Asia and both are smart cricketers who have shown already an ability to learn quickly. “It is part of your development as a young player coming into the side,” said Root. “You need to know how to play in these conditions and not only will it benefit them long term playing in Asia but also in matches where pitches do deteriorate late on anywhere in the world and start spinning drastically. You've got to have a game for it.”
Sri Lanka dropped Kusal Mendis after he recorded a fourth consecutive ducks last week and will again be captained by Dinesh Chandimal as Dimuth Karunaratne recovers from a broken thumb. They could also leave out leg spinner Hasaranga De Silva, who had a poor first Test and senior seamer, Suranga Lakmal, is fit again. The team are under pressure with questions about fitness, the standard of first-class cricket in Sri Lanka and the players' desire to play Test cricket. They need a better week.
This will be Root’s 99th Test and he moved back into the top five of the world rankings after his 228. His team are in his words continuing their “upward curve” and England have seen the Gabba lose its fortress tag. So far 2021 has been kind to them.