One of the first few international series to be cancelled in the earliest days of the Covid-19 outbreak has found its space on the calendar year. The England cricket team returned home from Sri Lanka last year but they are back in the island country to finish the business which barely got to its initial stage 10 months ago. The two-match Test series, with both Tests to be played in Galle, will commence from January 14.
The series also marks the start of a fresh season for England who last played in September. Joe Root’s men have a big year ahead of them, consisting of 17 Tests in 2021. One of their most challenging assignment will be the four-match Test series in India, for which they will fly straight from Sri Lanka. This series may well work as a breeding ground for those bigger battles which will be fought on similar kind of turning wickets they are likely to encounter at the Galle International Stadium. Hosting Test matches since 1998, Galle has seen 62 per cent of the wickets going to the spinners. In three Tests from 2018 onwards, that percentage has gone up to 73.
England thumped Sri Lanka 3-0 the last time they visited the island country, in 2018 which must lend a lot of confident to the visitors. However, they are a bit undercooked without any practice in the longest format of the game since their last Test in August, 2020. Moreover, they have not had much ground time on the current tour as well, playing a solitary intra-squad match which went across two days.
Sri Lanka, on the flip side, had a tough series in South Africa. Severed by injuries, they will be motivated to get back on winning ways on their home turf and avenge the whitewash in 2018.
Will the real Joe Root please stand up?
It is a massive year and series for Root, both as captain and as a batsman. Focusing on his batsmanship, his numbers in Test cricket have not been up to the mark since 2018.
Consequently, he has fallen behind his contemporaries - Virat Kohli, Steve Smith and Kane Williamson - all of whom have infused their respective side with valuable contributions as batsmen. There are voices stating that he is not a part of the “Fab 4” anymore. The last time Root influenced the result of a series with the bat was on the 2018 tour of Sri Lanka when his second innings hundred in Pallekele sealed an unassailable 2-0 lead for England.
Root is one of the better non-Asian batsman of spin bowling and in a testing year of Test cricket for England, he has the opportunity to rise again.
The selection conundrum
The conversations around the series are centred around the possible XIs of both sides. For England, it is a matter of what combination they field. For Sri Lanka, it is about which of their 11 players are fit.
Moeen Ali is out of the series after testing positive for Covid-19. Normally, you won’t say such a thing for an individual who has not played Test cricket for over a year but he is a big miss because of the balance he was supposed to provide. In the lower order, he could have been the perfect allrounder to lend a supporting hand to the two frontline spinners - Jack Leach and Dom Bess. In Moeen's absence, Root will take up that role.
Unless England add one of their reserve spinners to their squad, they will put three pacers on the park. One amongst Stuart Broad and James Anderson (who have over 1,100 Test wickets between them) to add experience, one amongst Olly Stone and Mark Wood to add pace and one amongst Sam Curran and Chris Woakes to add batting depth will be the way to go. Amongst these three sets, Curran seems to be the clear winner over Woakes for two reasons. One, he delivers the left-armer’s angle and two, Woakes joined the nets quite late because of an enforced isolation period due to Covid-19 concerns.
With three wicketkeepers in the England squad, there are also speculations around who will take the gloves. Skipper, Root has all but confirmed that Jos Buttler will be the wicketkeeper in the first Test. Reading between his lines suggest Ben Foakes, who was the man-of-the-series for England on the successful 2018 tour, will be overlooked for Dan Lawrence’s debut. Jonny Bairstow will return to Test cricket after 13 months and will bat at three.
Probable XI: Dom Sibley, Zak Crawley, Jonny Bairstow, Joe Root (c), Jos Buttler (wk), Dan Lawrence, Sam Curran, Dom Bess, Olly Stone/Mark Wood, Stuart Broad/James Anderson, Jack Leach.
Good news for them, Angelo Mathews is fit to add the much-needed experience in a team which has been starved for it over the last few years, though he will play as a specialist batsman. Dinesh Chandimal is also available for selection but Sri Lanka are certain to miss one of their most impressive youngsters, Dhananjaya de Silva, who would have provided useful off-breaks. Kusal Mendis now has 23 ducks in international cricket, second most by any specialist batsman at the age of 25. He will turn 26 in February and might be saved from the agony of adding to his poultry farm by being benched. He bagged a pair in the second Test in South Africa.
Unlike England, Sri Lanka are certain to play three spinners and it will be interesting to see which pacer makes the cut. Suranga Lakmal is the front-runner right now. A lot will rest on the young shoulders of the wrist-spinners - Lasith Embuldeniya and Wanindu Hasaranga - since England’s batting line-up will be heavy with right-handers to challenge Dilruwan Perera. Perera has a bowling average of 49.9 against the right-handers, more than twice as it is against the left-handers - 24.
Probable XI: Dimuth Karunaratne (c), Kusal Perera, Lahiru Thirimanne, Angelo Mathews, Dinesh Chandimal, Niroshan Dickwella (wk), Dasun Shanaka, Wanindu Hasaranga, Dilruwan Perera, Lasith Embuldeniya, Suranga Lakmal.