Testing times ahead as England prepare to kick off biggest year with Sri Lanka series

Will Macpherson
·4-min read
 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

Opportunity abounds for England in 2021, and it is easy to view the first assignment of their epic Test calendar, two Tests in Sri Lanka, as an hors d’oeuvre before the really juicy stuff comes out later on.

The challenges that follow are indeed mouthwatering; series home and away to India, at home to top-ranked New Zealand and an Ashes campaign Down Under, not to mention a T20 World Cup (and accompanying tours of India, Bangladesh and Pakistan) for the precious all-formatters.

Indeed, England have rested the most precious of all, Jofra Archer and Ben Stokes, with the horizon, not the here and now, in mind.

And this series, against a team that was just battered and bruised by South Africa, is a more distant, detached affair than any played by England in living memory.

Even at Galle, where viewers watch from inside the ground and out, almost every eyewitness will be officially involved.

The broadcasters from Sky Sports and the BBC’s Test Match Special team that you are so used to easing you out of your dank midwinter slumber will be commentating not from Galle, but the glamorous surrounds of Isleworth and Salford respectively.

There is no written media in town either, and just one England fan has travelled — Rob Lewis, a web designer from Sunbury who DJs under the name ‘DJ Randy Caddick’ — and he has been in Sri Lanka since England were hustled out due to the burgeoning pandemic 10 months ago.

AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images

It is hoped that events later in the year — both at home and away — will be back to something resembling normality.

Do not for a second, though, underestimate the challenge facing England over the next two weeks.

It is not so long ago that, in late 2018, England beat Sri Lanka 3-0, their first series sweep in Asia ever and a first series win anywhere outside England for almost three years.

By then, Sri Lanka had lost the slew of legends that studded their side for the first 15 years of this century, but the scale of England’s achievement was lost on few.

Sri Lankan conditions — spinning pitches, the heat and humidity — are alien enough to cause Englishmen nightmares, whether the fellow running in is a local net bowler or Muttiah Muralitharan.

Then, the extent of England’s pre-series challenges were the retirement of captain Alastair Cook and an injury to Jonny Bairstow. They had the luxury of six white-ball internationals and two two-day tour matches that allowed them to settle on the free-wheeling style that would win them the series (then prove flawed elsewhere).

This time, they have rested Stokes and Archer. Chris Woakes is just out of isolation, Rory Burns on paternity leave, Ollie Pope injured, Moeen Ali ill and Adil Rashid unavailable.

AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images

Joe Root’s Test squad began their prep in a tent in Loughborough with snow falling outside and have had the grand total of one day of middle practise (on a greenish surface) to prepare. Oh, and it has rained a lot since they arrived.

So, when Root says England’s preparation has “not been ideal” and “probably the shortest lead-up we’ve ever had going into an away Test series” it is not a case of getting excuses in early, it is stating a fact.

Even when they are well-prepared, England are infamously awful starters. Overseas, Galle 2018 is the only series opener they have won for almost five years. Even at home it is a problem; this summer, they lost to the West Indies, then beat Pakistan, thanks only to a brilliant partnership from Woakes and Jos Buttler, having trailed throughout the game. That must all change — and fast.

England have a squad to be excited about. But to succeed in a year of such varied challenges, they need different facets of their game to thrive at the appropriate moment — and they need great depth.

Do not be surprised if 20 players pull on a Test cap at one stage or another. It is an exciting time, full of opportunity, but it is also the ultimate challenge for the management, especially given suffocating bubble life.

In Sri Lanka, the departments that must thrive also happen to be the least proven areas of England’s game.

First, batting depth. Jonny Bairstow and Dan Lawrence come in; should they succeed, England head into the year with extremely welcome competition for places.

Second, spin bowling. Dom Bess and Jack Leach have a mighty challenge against aggressive players of spin.

Root believes England’s very deep seam attack will have a role to play, too, especially after the rain, but they will take centre stage later in the year.

England can ill-afford a slow start to this series and year. Victory in Sri Lanka would set them up beautifully for what is to come. But victory will not come easily at all.

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