Joe Root doesn’t do it, Kane Williamson doesn’t do it, and Virat Kohli wouldn’t dream of doing it. How has anybody ever managed to open the batting while captaining a Test team? Dimuth Karunaratne, possibly the last of a dying breed, approaches it like Alastair Cook. An old-school left-hander, he bats as if nobody has told him that he’s now the boss. His record is serenely unchanged, with an average around 37 and a strike rate of 49. His 10th Test hundred came along only last week, as Sri Lanka’s ship went down on the Highveld, but he has yet to make one in eight matches against England. The good news is that he loves batting at Galle, where both Tests will take place, and he can’t do worse than the last Sri Lanka captain to welcome Root, Dinesh Chandimal, who suffered a 3-0 whitewash in 2018.
To lose one colossus may be regarded as an inconvenience; to lose two in quick succession looks like a blow that can set you back decades. Sri Lanka’s batting still hasn’t recovered from the retirement of Mahela Jayawardene in August 2014 and Kumar Sangakkara a year later. Between them they made 18 scores of 200 or more in Tests, whereas Sri Lanka have managed only one since. It was scored (in Zimbabwe) by Angelo Mathews, the former captain who is now an elder statesman. If fit for this series, he will be fresh, after missing the South Africa tour with a hamstring injury. His Test average against England (45) is better than Sangakkara’s (40), but the batting above him is so brittle that he needs to aim for the stratosphere occupied by Jayawardene (58). Mathews has gone big before against Broad and Anderson: it was his 160, at Headingley in 2014, that brought Sri Lanka’s only series win on English soil.
Spearhead, in cricket, usually means a fast bowler, but spin is a spear too and in Sri Lanka it tends to have a recognised head. For ages it was Muttiah Muralitharan; then the mantle passed to Rangana Herath, who handed it on (in the middle of England’s last series in Sri Lanka) to the off-spinner Dilruwan Perera. Like Herath, Perera is a late developer. He is 38 and even older than Jimmy Anderson, if only by eight days. In 21 home Tests, he has 103 wickets at 28.75, and in 2018, although England won hands down, his 22-wicket haul was the best on either side. This time the England selectors have come up with a cunning plan to thwart him. They’ve left out most of their left-handers. Ben Stokes is rested, Rory Burns is on paternity leave, and Keaton Jennings has been ignored, despite being an opener like Burns and having a commanding record in Asia. Perera may be hoping that Moeen Ali, who has tested positive for Covid, makes a swift return.
When Root’s England routed Sri Lanka, they did it with a panoply of slow stuff – Moeen’s attacking off-spin, Adil Rashid’s assorted leg-breaks, and Jack Leach’s steady slow left-arm. This time, with Moeen convalescing and Rashid settling for being a white-ball star, the captain with the spin trident should be Karunaratne. His answer to Leach is Lasith Embuldeniya, who made his name with a five-wicket haul on debut in 2019 that led to an epic victory in South Africa. In six Tests since, he has picked up two more four-fers. Last year he was the only Sri Lankan among the Cricket Monthly’s 20 Cricketers for the 2020s. Asked to name his hero, Embuldeniya picked Herath. Asked to comment, Herath said: “He has all the fundamentals a left-arm spinner needs, like accuracy, and he has something I never had, which is height.”
An international man of mystery. He has two identities – on the scorecard, he is often PWH de Silva, but prefers his middle names, and the mystique extends to his bowling. A 23-year-old leg-spinner with a lethal googly, he was named player of the tournament last month in the inaugural Lanka Premier League, which was won by his team, Jaffna Stallions – if you can cope with having that on your shirt, you can handle most things. His Test debut, at Centurion on Boxing Day, was both sobering and promising. As the only specialist spinner, Hasaranga had to do the heavy lifting while South Africa piled up 621, but he did bag four scalps, including Quinton de Kock and Faf du Plessis (for 199), and then made a quickfire 59 to lift the gloom of an innings defeat. He has a lower first-class bowling average than Dom Bess, a higher batting average than Zak Crawley, and a fair chance of being the best leg-spinning Test all-rounder since Richie Benaud.