England are undercooked — and Sri Lanka series could be lost in the first session

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Nick Hoult
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January is a time to form new habits and for Joe Root’s England that means resolving to start the Test series against Sri Lanka On Thursday looking like winners rather than losers.

England are notoriously slow starters on overseas missions. They have lost all but one of their opening Tests in away series over the past three years and were beaten in the first match of last summer by West Indies.

The exception was in Galle in November 2018 when England set the trend for a whitewash by going after Sri Lanka’s bowling. The difference is they went into that series on the back of one-day cricket and three weeks in Sri Lanka. This time they have had quarantine, one intra-squad game and a handful of nets to get them going.

To say England are undercooked is an understatement and Root knows how a two-match series can be lost in the first session, recalling on Tuesday when his team were 27 for nine in Auckland three years ago.

“We've started series poorly and if we are to keep improving as a team we can't be behind the eight ball going into the second Test match of every series. We are very keen to start off strongly and to get ahead. The way we are going to do that is by scoring big first-innings runs and controlling the game,” Root said.

England are a stronger side than Sri Lanka but the advantage has been levelled out by resting players and the fact a two-Test series narrows the gap between teams as well. Moeen Ali’s illness has also robbed England of their matchwinner in Sri Lanka three years ago and limited their options.

This series was originally due to be played in March last year but was cancelled as England scrambled to get home before the pandemic shut down global travel. Zak Crawley and Dom Sibley had started that trip well with runs in warm-up games but will be opening the batting for the first time in Asia.  Crawley looks a fine player of spin; Sibley limited and with work to do. At three will be Jonny Bairstow who has played only one of England’s past 11 Tests while Dan Lawrence, an “eye-catching player” according to Root, is an unknown quantity on debut at five. 

Much is hoped of Dom Bess, but, like the rest of the side, the off-spinner his desperately short of match practice - REUTERS
Much is hoped of Dom Bess, but, like the rest of the side, the off-spinner his desperately short of match practice - REUTERS

Root confirmed he will bat four, his favoured position and where he scored a brilliant, series-clinching 124 in Kandy; the last time he contributed properly to an England win when a series was still there for the taking. 

Moeen’s car share to the airport with Chris Woakes has proved expensive, cutting into England’s resources further; Woakes ruled himself out on Tuesday after only just emerging from quarantine and with not enough bowling in his legs to be considered.

Woakes will be missed; although possibly more for his batting as a capable player of spin, something he showed in the Old Trafford run chase against Pakistan last year. Instead Sam Curran will be the all-rounder and he is more than capable of a counter attacking making 48 and 64 in two innings on the last Sri Lanka tour. The left-armer should also create some rough for Dom Bess as he starts out on a daunting Asian winter.

England inspected the pitch at length on Tuesday and rain has left it softer than usual but it is expected to be a low, slow turner with little bounce in the Galle tradition; a pitch that requires finger spinners to bowl flatter and quicker like Rangana Herath did taking 102 wickets, mainly in the DRS era, skidding the ball on for lbws and bowled.

Herath worked with Bess, helping him on a Lions spin camp in India in late 2019, an experience that helped strengthen his action and led to an England recall.

Bess may have to add pace to his bowling on this pitch otherwise he could sit up and be hit by players brought up on spin, and perhaps Jack Leach, who fires it in a little quicker, will be the more dangerous bowler with Root backing up. However, Leach has played just two first-class games in 12 months and Bess has not bowled in a proper match since August.  

“There's no point hiding behind the fact: we haven't had the ideal lead up to this series. It's probably the shortest lead up we've ever had going into an away Test series,” admitted Root.

England are likely to pick one of James Anderson or Stuart Broad, the pair more ready to accept their workload will be managed on unresponsive Asian pitches. Curran’s cutters will be handy while Mark Wood would give Root a pace option as well as reverse swing, although the lack of cricket in Galle and recent rain may mean the ball does not abrade as much as usual.

Galle was buzzing two and half years ago with 8,000 England fans. This time there will be only one supporter, Rob Lewis from Sunbury-on-Thames, who has hung around in Sri Lanka since March waiting for England to return. Covid restrictions mean he will have to watch from the ramparts, the Barmy Army reduced to a solitary figure in these strange times.

England (likely): Crawley, Sibley, Bairstow, Root, Lawrence, Buttler, Curran, Bess, Broad, Wood, Leach.

Sri Lanka (possible): Karunaratne, Kusal Perera, Mendis, Chandimal, Mathews, Dickwella, Shanaka, Hasaranga, Dilruwan Perera, Embuldeniya, Asitha Fernando.