Spin hard and bat long: the blueprint for winning in Sri Lanka

Andrew Fifield
·3-min read
Rory Burns, Sam Curran and Ben Foakes celebrate after the 3-0 series victory in Sri Lanka in 2018 - GETTY
Rory Burns, Sam Curran and Ben Foakes celebrate after the 3-0 series victory in Sri Lanka in 2018 - GETTY

England may have enjoyed a 3-0 clean sweep of Sri Lanka in their last visit to the country in 2018, but historically it is not a venue they have enjoyed visiting: you had to go back almost two decades for their previous series win there.

Conditions are stiflingly hot, pitches are slow, low and spin viciously, and there is now the added fatigue factor of coping with stringent Covid regulations. So, what are the keys to winning in Sri Lanka - and how well equipped are England to do so when the series begins on Thursay morning? We asked stats experts CricViz to help create a blueprint for Joe Root's side.

Spin's the thing

It may be stating the obvious but spin bowling — or quality spin bowling, at least — holds the key to beating Sri Lanka on their own turf. The ball turns more in the country than in any of the other major Test nations, and no other country boasts a better average for spin bowlers since 2010.

Average spin, by country
Average spin, by country
Spin bowler averages
Spin bowler averages

In the six series wins for visiting teams in Sri Lanka since the start of 2010, spinners have bowled 53 per cent of the overs. In these series wins, the visiting spinners have averaged 26.15 — better than the pace attack. Similarly, the inverse also holds true: when visiting spinners have struggled, their sides tend to lose or draw the series. 

England's spin resources are hardly overflowing and the Covid-enforced absence of Moeen Ali will be keenly felt. It places huge pressure on Dominic Bess, who averages over 40 with the ball in Test cricket, and Jack Leach, who has not played a Test match in a year due to fitness issues. 

Wickets with the new ball 

That is not to say there is no place for seam or pace bowlers in Sri Lanka. As important as spinners have been for visiting teams, the impact of early wickets for the pace attack has played a vital part in touring teams being able to win. 

Since 2010, in Tests won by the visiting side, their pace bowlers average 24.44 in the first 20 overs, considerably lower compared to matches they have lost or drawn. It means there will be a key role for James Anderson and Stuart Broad in the Tests they play.

Pace bowling in Sri Lanka
Pace bowling in Sri Lanka

Go big in first innings

The importance of a significant first-innings total is writ large across Test cricket, but holds particularly true on the sub-continent. Since the start of 2010, visiting teams have averaged 42.36 runs per dismissal in the first innings in Sri Lanka. Of all host countries, teams have averaged better in the first innings only in Bangladesh and India.

Given England's propensity for batting collapses. the fact that their line-up in Sri Lanka features a sprinkling of relatively unproven players, and those under pressure for their place, and that they are missing the totemic Ben Stokes, there will be even more pressure on the batters to deliver a big total in the first innings and ensure they are not forced to make significant scores second time around when conditions will be even more spin-friendly.

First-innings batting in Sri Lanka
First-innings batting in Sri Lanka